From right: Eighth graders Avery Stuhlbarg, Annali Langenegger and Meaghan Zeff lead Emilee Ritter’s sixth grade class on a tour at Nevin Platt Middle School in Boulder on Tuesday. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
From right: Eighth graders Avery Stuhlbarg, Annali Langenegger and Meaghan Zeff lead Emilee Ritter’s sixth grade class on a tour at Nevin Platt Middle School in Boulder on Tuesday. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Math teacher Emilee Ritter was so excited to see half of her sixth graders in person Tuesday at Boulder’s Platt Middle School that she almost forgot to join the Google Meet for the half of her class learning remotely.

“I’m so excited I can’t even stand it,” she said. “I’m really excited about just getting to know these kids, getting to see that joy, that excitement, that happiness to be here. It’s just awesome.”

From right, eighth graders Meaghan Zeff and Annali Langenegger talk to a group of sixth graders during a tour at Nevin Platt Middle School in Boulder on Tuesday. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Though they’re about two months into the school year, about half of Boulder Valley’s sixth graders and a quarter of the ninth graders experienced their first day in-school day of middle or high school Tuesday.

After K-2 students returned to school buildings at the end of September, school district leaders moved up the timeline for rest of the grades to attend in person. Third through fifth grade, sixth grade and ninth grade students start in person this week, while the remaining grades start returning Oct. 27.

Elementary students attend in person four days. Middle schoolers are split into two groups, with each group attending two days a week in person. High schoolers are split into four groups, with each group attending one day in person.

On days when secondary students aren’t in person, they follow along with in-person classes from home. Mondays remain a “launch” day when students learn independently online, while teachers plan. Families also continue to have the option to keep their children remote only.

At Lafayette’s Centaurus High School, the whole freshman class usually would spend the first day touring the building, finding their classes and playing get-to-know-you games with junior and senior mentors. On Tuesday, about 100 of the school’s 400-student freshmen class participated in a short outside activity with their mentors before going through regular class schedules.

“We’re just jumping back in,” Principal Dan Ryan said. “It’s a different first day, but it’s still a first day.”

Freshman Phoebe Maierhofer, who got a little lost and was late to her first in-person class, described being inside a school as “really weird.”

“I haven’t been with this big a group of people in a long time,” she said, adding she reconnected with some classmates she hadn’t seen since elementary school and was glad for the opportunity to ask teachers questions in person.

Freshman Aidan McCartney said his first day was going OK, with more interaction with teachers and fewer distractions than learning from home.

“You don’t get to see as many people with one day a week, but at least it’s something,” he said.

Signs for social distancing are visible for a tour of sixth graders at Nevin Platt Middle School in Boulder on Tuesday. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

At Platt, 18 eighth grade mentors, in groups of three, led staggered school tours for the sixth grade classes, offering tips as they pointed out the gym, cafeteria, bathrooms and counseling office.

“It’s a little bit hard at first, but your guts will get used to it,” eighth grader Avery Stuhlbarg said as she explained the building’s layout.

She said she’s been looking forward to being a mentor in the 360 leadership program since sixth grade.

“When I was in sixth grade, I was completely confused,” she said. “My 360 leaders really helped me figure everything out. Now, I think the sixth graders need this even more than ever. I want to be their support.”

For herself, she said, she struggled with the decision of whether to return for in-person classes and was feeling anxious. But, she said, the safety protocols she saw in a video created by the principal and while leading a tour were reassuring.

“There are signs and masks and rules,” she said. “It’s much easier to get back into the groove of things when you feel safe. I feel really safe here.”

Districtwide safety measures include increased cleaning, improved ventilation, wearing masks while inside, increased hand washing, social distancing to the extent possible and keeping students in the same groups, or cohorts, throughout the school day.

At the elementary level, each class stays together as a cohort, with up to 25 students. At middle school, where students attend three classes on a block schedule, students are in a total cohort of up to 45 students, with up to 15 students in each individual class.

At high schools, also on a block schedule, students are in a cohort of 24 to 32 kids, with about eight students in each individual class. High school campuses are closed — no leaving for lunch — to maintain cohorts.

The idea behind cohorts is to limit exposure, in turn limiting the number of students and staff members required to quarantine when there’s exposure to someone with a probable or confirmed COVID-19 case. Information about positive and probable cases and quarantines is available through an online dashboard.

At Platt, sixth grader De Day said she had mixed feelings about her first day of middle school, but mostly was “really excited.” One struggle was reminding herself to social distance from her classmates when “I just want to socialize.”

“I’m so happy, and I’m so intrigued about how everything is going to keep working,” she said.

Eighth-grader and mentor Meaghan Zeff said she’s looking forward to attending in person next week, adding learning from home can be lonely and school feels like “a big family.”

“You haven’t had face-to-face communication in so long,” she said. “It’s weird to see people in school and actually talk to them. The biggest factor was the unknown. The video (by the principal) really helped.”