On the first day of classes, Hope-Hill Elementary School in Atlanta welcomed students with a red carpet.

One by one, each student heard their name called out — thanks to a blaring megaphone — as they stepped inside the schoolhouse door Monday. For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, their parents had permission to enter the building and hold their small hands until they reached the classroom.

”We are hoping that things will truly be normal for us, for these kids and they’re feeling back to themselves,” said Pam Moss, co-chair of the school’s parent-teacher association.

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Students arrive for the first day of school at Hope-Hill Elementary School in Atlanta on Monday, August 1, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Students arrive for the first day of school at Hope-Hill Elementary School in Atlanta on Monday, August 1, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Students arrive for the first day of school at Hope-Hill Elementary School in Atlanta on Monday, August 1, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The desire for some degree of normalcy was a common refrain as students in Atlanta and in Cherokee, Cobb and Rockdale counties returned to school Monday. Clayton and Gwinnett counties start classes beginning Wednesday. Students in DeKalb and Fulton counties go back next week.

But an undercurrent of concern cut through the celebrations.

While a state law signed by Gov. Brian Kemp last spring allows parents to opt out of mask mandates, some COVID-19 protocols remain in place. Clayton and Gwinnett, for example, are requiring employees to wear masks because of a recent rise in new cases. And districts are ramping up safety efforts to prevent armed intruders.

APS plans to hire 11 more police officers and a gang intelligence officer, increasing its police force to 106 officers. In Cobb County, the school board recently agreed to allow some non-teaching employees to carry weapons on campus, despite some protests.

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Kemp Elementary Principal Billy Pritz (left) and Cobb County Superintendent Chris Ragsdale (right) talk to students in a third grade class on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Kemp Elementary Principal Billy Pritz (left) and Cobb County Superintendent Chris Ragsdale (right) talk to students in a third grade class on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Kemp Elementary Principal Billy Pritz (left) and Cobb County Superintendent Chris Ragsdale (right) talk to students in a third grade class on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale has been tight-lipped on security details, including which employees will be armed and when. The district is in the process of fully implementing a new crisis alert system. It will allow employees to trigger a lockdown, said Ragsdale after he toured Kemp Elementary School in Powder Springs.

“To be able to communicate a ‘code red’ as quickly as possible saves time, and saving time saves lives,” he said. “The little things can mean the difference between life and death. Literally.”

Katrina McDaniel, whose third grade daughter attends Kemp, is feeling optimistic.

”I’m hoping that COVID stays under control,” McDaniel said. “I hope they put better (security) measures in place. We want to have a good year — that’s the goal.”

While her mother keeps her fingers crossed for a safe year, Paige is excited to learn her multiplication tables.

The school’s principal, Billy Pritz, said after more than two years navigating a pandemic, ”it feels a lot more like 2019.”

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Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring (center) visits Hope-Hill Elementary School on the first day of classes in Atlanta on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring (center) visits Hope-Hill Elementary School on the first day of classes in Atlanta on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring (center) visits Hope-Hill Elementary School on the first day of classes in Atlanta on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

In a busy Hope-Hill hallway, Principal Maureen Wheeler leaned down to hug students as she led Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring around the building.

Kids squealed; teachers beamed. Herring felt the enthusiasm too.

”It’s the energy that we try to bring so that as they come in, they are excited to be back face-to-face,” she said.

APS will still require employees, including teachers, to participate in weekly COVID-19 testing. A voluntary program will give students the chance to take COVID tests twice a week.

Herring said the district’s police force will be visible. Middle and high schools will use metal detectors. APS leaders plan to discuss whether or not to require clear bookbags in the future, a rule that schools in Rockdale and Clayton counties have adopted.

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Students arrive for the first day of school at Hope-Hill Elementary School in Atlanta on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Students arrive for the first day of school at Hope-Hill Elementary School in Atlanta on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Students arrive for the first day of school at Hope-Hill Elementary School in Atlanta on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Jackie Ellis, a third grade teacher at Hope-Hill, clutched a cup of coffee as she greeted her students. She’d had to stop at two coffee shops because the first had a broken latte machine: “I said not on Day One.”

Ellis planned a normal first day: help students get to know each other, play a math game and practice lining up.

“It feels like a really big celebration,” Ellis said.

Join AJC education reporter Ty Tagami for a back-to-school discussion with three Georgia educators on Facebook Live at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Read about and register here.

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