BANGOR, Maine — One of the state's largest school districts went back to class today, and things are closer to 'normal.'
With a COVID mask policy in place, safety remains one of the top priorities for Bangor school officials, both in the 11 public schools and at the private John Bapst Memorial High School.
Though students are wearing masks, they are all back under the same roof at last for in-person learning five days a week. The mask mandate is also in place at John Bapst. Both public and private school officials say the excitement to be back is both felt and seen.
"Students are the oxygen of schools, so a school that is empty or half-empty during the pandemic, it doesn't feel alive it doesn't feel like its doing its job," said Armistead.
School superintendent Jim Tager is new to the position in Bangor this year. Former superintendent Betsy Webb retired last school year.
Tager says he feels good the year is kicking off with a mask mandate. He hopes he can relax rules as he assesses the school COVID atmosphere with doctors and nurses each day.
"I think we need to loosen up a little bit and have fun this year too, so I think that's for faculty staff, students and parents," said Tager.
The Bangor School Department and John Bapst High School officials are encouraging students to get vaccinated against COVID if they are 12 years of age or older.
"We've had students out for 17 months so we are really wanting school to be the place they want to be, so we are really looking to amp up what we do with co and extracurricular activities and have a reason for every student to be in school," said Tager.
Tager says he is encouraging teaches to take more classes outdoors. Students can have more mask breaks since they are not required to wear masks when outdoors. Tage said job number one is that he must keep everyone at the schools safe.
Building stronger relationships among students and teachers is a priority this year within the Bangor School Department.
"We are starting a mentoring program or enhancing it. We are hoping to add 500 new mentors this year so students have a significant adult that they can talk with," said Tager.
John Bapst head of school David Armistead says he's concerned about the Delta variant and the education lost during hybrid learning.
"I think everybody in this week and next week is going to re-learn how to do school," said Armistead.
"I'm excited to have music and assemblies and kids all in person. Friendships being formed from the first day of school is really an important part of the school experience," said Jennifer Babcock, chair of the English department.
Babcock says she teaches went into education because she thrives with kids and their energy. She says she learns from them as much as they learn from her, but she is concerned about this year.
"Being in a hybrid situation...I just felt we didn't make those connections the way I know we can, so being remote is my biggest fear," said Babcock.
"It's just really nice to be running around the halls, seeing all the teachers, and talking to them again!" said student Olivia Rand.