After two weeks of virtual learning, some kindergarten students and first graders at Jackson Elementary in Lawrenceville returned to classrooms on Wednesday.

Instead of crowds streaming off buses, mask-clad students exited one or two at a time and calmly walked toward the school. They stayed distant from one another.

Upbeat music played as teachers enthusiastically welcomed their pupils and guided them to their classrooms, as if on the first day of a regular school year.

“We live for the first day of school as educators,” said Principal Kara Dutton. “So far, so good. Children are coming in with smiles on under their masks.”

It marked the start of Gwinnett County Public Schools’ phased return to in-person learning. The district, which had more than 180,000 students last year, offered two options as the new year began. Students could choose to remain virtual all semester, or to return to classrooms.

In addition to kindergartners and first graders, students in grades 6 and 9 and special education students of all grade levels who are in self-contained classrooms returned to classrooms on Wednesday. Other grades that opted for in-classroom learning will be gradually phased in through Sept. 9.

As of Wednesday morning, 44% of Gwinnett’s students had opted into the plan. The number was 49% last week. Parents were able to change their children’s selection as late as Tuesday night.

Jackson Elementary has 46% of its 1,410 students choosing the in-person option.

Many Gwinnett teachers have raised concerns about returning to the classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic, which hit the county particularly hard over the summer. At least 309 Gwinnett County residents have died from COVID-19 and nearly 23,500 have tested positive since March, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health.

As of Monday, Gwinnett’s positivity rate — the proportion of people who get tested for COVID-19 who receive a positive result — was 12.2%, outpacing the state rate of 10.7%. Gwinnett’s rate was 9.3% last week, and the state’s was 9.8%. Anything over 10% is considered high and rates between 5 and 10% are considered moderate. The county’s daily case numbers have been on a steady decline since a July peak.

Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale County Health Director Audrey Arona told the Gwinnett County Board of Education last week that with proper mask use, social distancing and cleanliness measures, it would be safe to return to classrooms. The district says its safety measures include requiring masks, placing desks far apart and implementing new cleaning regimens.

Some teachers were not satisfied with the district’s response and its refusal to allow remote teaching for concerned faculty. Ashley Newman, an elementary school teacher and mother to a 4-year-old, requested to teach remotely for the fall semester and applied for paid childcare leave. When both were denied, she felt her only option was to quit, she said at a Board of Education meeting last week.

Dutton said her child, a high school student, will be going back to school in person. Dutton has been working in the school building through the summer months and is confident in the district’s plan.

“I think we’ve made the best plan that we can for children to come back and for our teachers and children and families to feel safe,” Dutton said.

Rumors of a teacher sick-out in protest of the district’s handling of the pandemic circulated ahead of Wednesday’s return to classrooms. Of Gwinnett’s more than 12,000 teachers, 427 were absent and requested a substitute, according to district spokeswoman Sloan Roach. On the same day in last year, 547 teachers were out and needed a sub.

There were “one or two” teacher absences at Jackson Elementary School on Wednesday, but they were not related to any sick-out or protest, Dutton said.

“Our teachers want to be here,” she said.