PICKERING, ONT. -- It’s a day of firsts for thousands of students in the Greater Toronto Area going back to school in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Children have been out of the classroom for six months and for many first day butterflies were an understatement.

“My stomach’s hurting,” Bailey Ashmede, who is starting Grade 7 at William Dunbar Public School in Pickering, said.

“I’m scared but I’m happy,” Angelica Cozza said just before making her way to class. “I want to see my friends but l don’t know how hot and stuff it will be in the classroom with our masks and stuff.”

Elementary students in the Durham District School Board (DDSB) are returning to school with a staggered start. Those with last names beginning in letters A to G went back on Tuesday.

“I really honestly have no expectations as this point,” Karen Ashmede said as she was dropping off her daughter at school. “It’s all just fly by the seat of your pants, like the entire thing has been since March.”

“It’s time for them to go back,” another mother, Nella Cozza, said. “They are ready to learn. They are eager to learn. We need to adapt to our new ways.”

Attending school looks and feels familiar. Students have loaded-up backpacks and got the chance to enjoy time with friends once again.

But, other parts of the year are new, everything from staying in cohorts, wearing a mask and eating lunch in the classroom.

“My main concern was the class sizes, but other than that I’m happy with what’s been laid out so far,” mother Cindy Felix said.

“It’s not anything to really be afraid of. It’s just a lot of different stuff this year,” Felix’s son Kaiyn said.

Tuesday also marks the return of school for families with elementary students in the DDSB who have chosen to stay home and learn online.

The school board has been reassuring families, no matter how children return, that tools are in place to support the new reality.

“We want you to know that we have people and resources available. Any student experience well-being or mental health concerns is encouraged to reach out to their teacher for support,” DDSB Superintendent of Education Georgette Davis said in an orientation video to students.