If you didn’t see the masks, you might have figured this as a typical first day of school. Backpacks, bikes, and books.

“I’m excited,” said fifth grader Zoey Donovan, as she waited outside Dewey Elementary School this morning.

But masks are now a mandatory part of the school day for District 65’s nearly 7.000 students. Children will sit three feet apart, to help minimize the spread of COVID-19. Lunch will be outside, weather permitting. Optional COVID-19 testing for students starts in mid-September, and by mid-October, teachers and other staff members will have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

For some students, this was the first day in a school building since March 2020, when schools were closed statewide due to the pandemic. (District 65 did bring some children back last February under a part-remote, part in-person hybrid system).

Fourth grader Owen Simic said remote learning on Zoom was “not as much fun” as school in the building, where you can interact with friends and teachers.

Fifth grader Brinley Mason said school on Zoom “was kind of hard,” because of various technical issues. Brinley said she was “a little nervous” going back in person today, however, because “we’ll be doing a whole day now,” instead of partial days in remote learning.

But fellow Fifth grader Zoey was “looking forward to a full day of school,” because remote learning was “really weird.”

While Evanston has among the highest COVID vaccination numbers in the state, and one of the lowest virus positivity rates, the illness, particularly the more transmissible Delta variant, is forcing more attention to COVID mitigation.

Still, Lara Simic, Owen’s mother, said she was “not super concerned” about the virus. She and her husband are both vaccinated, and their other child, a middle schooler, will get the shots when he becomes eligible at age 12 later this fall.

But elementary school students are too young for COVID vaccines, making health and safety precautions in school extremely important.

And you never know what may happen next. After all, it was only a few weeks ago that it seemed like the pandemic was fading.

As District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton told the school board on Monday night, “We need to remain flexible and adaptive as health conditions and guidance change.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.