BELOIT — “I want to see my friends, learn something and play basketball.”

That’s what Converse Elementary School third grader Derrick Gurrola said on Thursday morning as his mother Isabell Gurrola dropped him off for school.

It was an emotional day, the first time Beloit school district students attended in-person learning since the schools moved to distance learning in the spring of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Derrick’s mother said she was going to miss her son, after looking after him at home for so long.

“It’s going to be quiet,” she said.

Under the hybrid model, students are split into a group A coming to school in the first half of week, with Wednesday remaining a professional development day, and group B coming in the second half of the week. Kids remaining in distance learning only participate in classroom instruction from home. On Thursday, the Cohort B students began their in-person studies in the school buildings with Cohort A students set to start Monday.

“The kids are so happy to be here. It’s great to have some normalcy back,” said Converse Principal Leah Malott. “We are operating with full smiles under our masks. It’s the culmination of the moment we’ve been waiting for.”

Malott said the Cohort B kids began with breakfast, with the Cohort A kids at home having their morning meal alongside them via their iPad screens as the interaction was simulcasted.

Inside Converse, Malott said students were learning the new safety procedures while being closely supervised. Teachers were working on social and emotional activities to help the kids get to know each other and get acclimated. Some of the 4K students and kids new to the neighborhood were inside Converse for the first time and getting tours.

“The morale is very high today. We are here for kids, and we are finally back with kids. We only have a short time until the end of the year, but we are going to make the most of it,” Malott said. “Our teachers have done a great job with distance learning, but this brings everything full circle. It’s nice to be able to put into practice what we’ve worked for and get things going the way they would normally operate, but with some safe modifications.”

“The energy makes you really emotional, and it’s good to see,” said Aldrich Intermediate School Principal Joe Vrydaghs.

Although the teachers and staff were a little nervous with all the new procedures, he said the first day went well.

“It’s been as smooth as can be, a well-oiled machine. I think students are seeing this won’t be overwhelming but will be the best nine weeks of anyone’s life in school,” Vrydaghs said.

Vrydaghs said those at the school are spreading a welcoming message. The school is home to a big balloon arch and newly decorated bulletin boards and hallways. Vrydaghs said he’s been going around to each class, having chats with students.

The biggest change from last year, Vrydaghs said, is getting all the kids accustomed to doing their online daily COVID-19 screener which is required to enter school.

To prepare for the big day, McNeel Intermediate School teachers held a drive-by parade through the neighborhood on Wednesday with decorated cars to help students get ready for the big day.

In an interview on Thursday, McNeel Principal Michelle Hendrix-Nora said students were glad to be back.

“We are ready to receive them with open arms and excitement,” she said.

Each student was given a gift on their first day back.

“Our classrooms and hallways are decorated, and music was playing in the morning,” she said. “We are excited to get the new group next week and finish the year off strong.”