Just as they do each year, most of the 4,300 teachers in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools spent the first day of school getting to know their students. But the greetings were unlike any other first day of school.
"OK, keep your mic muted," sixth-grade teacher Holly Hodges said Monday, sitting in front of her laptop in her empty classroom at Northwest Middle School. "We don't want feedback."
Over at Mount Tabor High School, biology teacher Robyn Allen called out students individually on Microsoft Teams, a teleconferencing software.
"Mind keeping your screen on?" Allen asked students who had turned the cameras off from their laptops.
School was back in session for 1.5 million students in North Carolina on Monday, with some districts, including Davie County Schools and Mount Airy City Schools, open for in-person learning and others, including Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, starting the year with full-time remote learning.
The local district has about 54,500 students in grades pre-K through 12, many of whom started the 2020-21 school year by opening a laptop and seeing a teacher interacting with them. That's a big change from last spring when there was limited live communication between students and teachers.
The hallways were quiet and the classrooms mostly empty except for lone teachers sitting at their desks at schools across the district. Ed Weiss, the principal at Mount Tabor, noted the contrast.
"I would love to have them face-to-face, to have the hustle and bustle, the arts, marching band and Friday night football," Weiss said, sporting a Mount Tabor mask. "That's all near and dear to us. Kids still need to grow, they need to build their futures and we're still a big part of shaping that, whether it's in person or remotely. We're a school family."
The day started with a statewide technological glitch in NCED Cloud, a site run by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, that powers the online learning systems, PowerSchool and Canvas. The system was back up by early afternoon.
Students and teachers were able to connect through Microsoft Teams and Zoom without using those online learning platforms, said school district spokesman Brent Campbell.
Most teachers spent Monday meeting kids.
"The first two weeks are going to be about review and getting the kinks worked out," Campbell said.
The majority of the calls to the district's technology center had to do with issues logging onto Canvas, he said.
Freda Smith, the principal at Northwest Middle, said her team worked for months trying to anticipate all of the challenges of remote learning.
"How do we make sure students are accessing remote learning? How do we coach teachers to be prepared? How do we help parents who are home and those who are not?" Smith said. "It's a big picture that has come together."
On Monday, she popped into several classrooms to check on teachers and make sure things were running smoothly.
"It's not the same," Smith said, "but it is what it is."
Ten-year old Lucy Davis-Huie, a fifth-grader at Brunson Elementary School, sat in front of her laptop at 8:20 a.m. to check in with her teacher. Her father, Michael Huie, said he was glad to see her interacting virtually with her teacher. Last spring, teachers and students communicated through emails and other messaging systems.
"It's nice to see people, even though it was like being in a sci-fi movie," Huie said. "She's computer-savvy and responds to remote learning, and we're lucky enough that one of us can be here with her because of our schedules. She's got motivation and assistance when she needs it."
Students who need supervision, some extra instruction or more structure than they would find at home have options at remote learning centers that are available in the school district. The Northwest N.C. YMCA has 305 students at YMCA's across the region at its E-Learning Academies.
Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), who has advocated for giving parents an in-person learning option, visited Mount Airy High School on Monday. He said in a statement that prohibiting in-person instruction is a "recipe for failure for students from less fortunate households who can't afford 'learning centers' or private tutors. Parents need the option of full in-person instruction."
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools is working with community centers and churches to provide remote learning centers, some of which will be free or at a reduced fee.