BARRIE, ONT. -- The start of high school for thousands of students across Simcoe County was anything but ordinary.

As part of the Simcoe County District School Board’s staggered return to in-person learning, 300 grade nine students were the only ones allowed inside Bear Creek Secondary School Tuesday.

There are 16,000 secondary school students within the public school board, about 85 per cent are expected to return to school this week; all with masks on, adhering to new health and safety guidelines.

“It gets kind of hot in the mask. It’s different. It’s two hours of sitting,” said Bear Creek student Cameron Chalut, who described the return to school as a great way to reconnect with friends following nearly six months away from school.

For Eastview Secondary School student Bustin Jack, wearing a mask in gym class will take some getting used to; Jack said some students aren’t used to wearing a mask for hours at a time. “Just weird moving around with a mask on,” he said.

Bear Creek student Zachary Sinclair expressed excitement in his return to school and some concerns with being able to socialize with friends under new physical distancing and safety protocols, including eating lunch in classrooms and wearing a mask at all times indoors.

“It’s going to be challenging because I cannot communicate with my friend often,“ said Sinclair.

Despite the challenges, most 6students said they’re happy to be back hanging out with friends at school for the first time in nearly half a year.

“It’s cool to see my friends, and I found online a little challenging because it’s harder to learn without being face-to-face with your teacher, so I actually kind of like being in person again,” said Darrian Arnott.

With desks spread apart in classrooms, lines and arrows draw on floors in hallways and signage posted throughout the building; schools are taking advantage of opening windows and frequent walks to limit possible exposure to the virus.

“Most of the kids are going out before study hall,” said Nicholas Aubin, who started the school year with science class.

“Everything that we hoped would happen, happened,” said Bear Creek Secondary Principal Jason Pino. “Our schedule is set up so that they’re in class for two hours in the morning. Every class will get a break during those two hours. Then they have lunch and another then another two hours in the afternoon with another small break.”

Pino said between eight and 10 classes were run at Bear Creek on day one.

“We had a lot of big smiles. It was a really great moment to see them all back in the classroom,” said Life Skills educator Susan Mills. “I think a lot of them have been a little thrown with not being able to return to us.”

The gradual start to the school year continues Wednesday as tenth graders join the ninth graders, followed by grade 11 and 12 students Thursday.