Shantrese Austin has been teaching elementary school since she stepped out of college and is familiar with all the feelings that come with the first day of school.
There’s the chaos of children arrive at their new classrooms. There’s the joy as she meets her second-grade students at Emma E. Booker Elementary School.
But this year, for the first time she can remember, there's the nervousness, too.
The Sarasota County School board decided in early June on a policy that would allow parents and teachers to decide on masks while on campus. COVID-19 cases have risen rapidly in Sarasota and Florida over the past few weeks to the point that testing centers are reopening and local hospitals are revising visiting policies. And children under 12 are not yet approved for vaccines.
Keeping students masked and six feet apart every day was challenging last year, she said. But now, beyond offering hand sanitizer and having students practice washing their hands, the 33-year-old teacher says she hopes parents choose to send their kids with masks.
“We're walking into this delta variant that is supposed to be more contagious than the first (virus),” Austin said. “I think putting 16 kids in a classroom with no masks on is not a good idea.”
On Tuesday, parents were able to follow their children into school to connect with their teachers and see the classrooms. Some children were nervous about their new classrooms while others were ready to get the ball rolling.
Parents hugged their children goodbye at Emma E. Booker Elementary school and Tuttle Elementary School and let them start their school years.
At Southside Elementary School, students were walked to school by their parents or dropped off by the school bus where they were then met by Pprincipal Jamie Hannon and staff to be directed where to go.
Nicole McClain, director of nursing services at the in-patient rehab facility at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, had been preparing her daughter Skyla Littles about possible COVID-19 cases since it was clear it would still be an issue as she started kindergarten at Southside.
“What I’m seeing at the hospital with rising positive cases, it’s nerve-wracking,” McClain said. “It’s not mandatory so I’m explaining to her if she’s around a bunch of kids she needs to keep (her mask) on. I’m not trying to ruin her childhood but I want her to be safe.”
Marcia Van Ginhoven, mother of Grace and Carlson starting third grade and first grade respectively at Southside, was happy to see the county adopt a mask-optional policy. Grace for her part was excited to get ice cream with her brother after their first day back.
“I told (Grace and Carlson) they can do what they want,” Ginhoven said. “If they want to wear a mask they can, if they don’t then they don’t have to. That’s our family policy so we’re glad the schools are doing the same.”
Melissa Ierardi welcomed the continuation of in-person schooling at Southside after having her daughter Ella do remote learning for part of last year.
“I’m a little nervous,” Ella Ierardi said. “I’ve never been in first grade before.”
“(Remote learning) was hard for us,” Melissa Ierardi said. “She could see kids in the classroom doing fun things she didn’t get to do.”
James and Stacey Frederick had a much better experience with their children — Elijah and Wayde — doing remote learning, but also professed to be excited that their kids would start a new year in classrooms.
“The summer was really short,” Stacey said. “I wish it was a couple weeks longer, but every parent is going to say different.”
Sarasota resident Franck Guillet had his son Alexandre attend virtual school for the first month of last school year before having him return to classrooms. He’s left the decision on whether or not to wear a mask during class to his son, who has just started fifth grade.
“I’m going to wear my mask for the first couple of days and see if anybody else is wearing (theirs),” Alexandre Guillet said. “If almost nobody is wearing theirs, I won’t wear (mine).”
David Conway and Nat Kaemmerer contributed to this story