INDIANAPOLIS — It was the purple Powerade that convinced her.
Kennedy Heim’s first day of high school was last Thursday. By the weekend, her school in central Indiana had already closed its doors, after a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus and other employees were required to quarantine.
Kennedy’s mother got a call from a contact tracer saying her daughter, a 14-year-old freshman, might have been exposed. So on Monday, they went for testing at the National Guard Armory, just down the street from her school. Wednesday morning, they got the results: Kennedy had tested positive.
“I was trying to hydrate,” she said, “and I was like, ‘Definitely can’t taste that.’”
As the first students return to American classrooms, many face a profoundly altered experience, where sitting next to a friend on a long bus ride or unmasking at a busy table in the cafeteria carries a heightened level of risk.
Most schools have yet to open, and a growing number — especially in the nation’s largest districts — are opting to stay online as caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths continue to climb in their states. But in some places, including Indiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia, students began streaming back into classrooms as early as last week, with quarantines quickly following.
Elwood Junior-Senior High School in Indiana, where Kennedy attends, reverted to remote learning after the positive tests — which now include at least two students — were reported, although it plans to reopen. Just hours into the first day of the new year at Greenfield Central Junior High School outside Indianapolis, administrators received word that a student had tested positive.
In North Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga., a series of widely shared photos showed students crowded into packed hallways during their first days back to class this week. Few were wearing masks, and there was little sign of social distancing, generating criticism and outrage in news reports and on social media.
A 15-year-old student at North Paulding, Hannah Watters, was suspended for five days for posting some of those images on Twitter, according to her mother, Lynne Watters, who said she filed a grievance with the school on Thursday.
“I expressed my concerns and disagreement with that punishment,” Ms. Watters said in a text message. The school’s principal could not immediately be reached for comment, but the district’s superintendent defended its reopening plans, saying the photos had been taken out of context.
Elsewhere, though, where there has been less controversy or reason for concern, the familiar school day feels, well, familiar. Some student pioneers told us what it was like to be among the first American schoolchildren back in classrooms this fall.
Jaleah Walker, 16, Corinth High School in Mississippi
Jaleah Walker had the option to attend her junior year online, but she had not seen her friends in months, and she knew her challenging course load would be easier to manage with a teacher in the room.
“I wanted a sense of normalcy,” she said. So on July 27, Jaleah went back to school in northern Mississippi — one of the earliest students in America to do so. She and her classmates had their temperatures checked before entering the building, and everyone was required to wear masks.
Desks were more spaced out, and there were rules for walking through the hallways. Students ate in their classrooms instead of in the cafeteria.
Despite the changes, Jaleah said things felt pretty normal, and it was a huge relief to see her friends again. “We had been texting and FaceTiming and just ready to see each other.”
But by the end of the first week, a student had tested positive for the virus. Everyone who had been in contact with that student was sent home to quarantine.
“It started to be different as soon as the Covid positives came out, because the classrooms got way slimmer,” Jaleah said.
By Thursday, the school had six positive cases, the district said. At her mom’s advice, Jaleah is now taking her classes virtually. She does not know when or if she will be able to return to school.
Austin Lines, 18, New Palestine High School in Indiana
As the editor in chief of his high school yearbook and a photographer for the school newspaper, returning to school is a big story for Austin Lines.
But reporting in the pandemic has already been challenging, he said. The newspaper and yearbook staffs cannot walk around the school as freely as before, or march up to strangers to ask them questions.
He does not know if photographers or reporters will be allowed at sports events, either. “It presents a lot of questions,” he said.
On the first day of school on Monday, there was already breaking news: About 20 students had to quarantine for 14 days because they came into close contact with a student who had tested positive before school started.
The student’s physician gave the family the incorrect date for when the student could return to school, local media reported. Some of Austin’s friends have had to quarantine as a result, he said.
“It makes me nervous for how quickly everyone is going to be quarantined and put out of school,” he said.
Ian Whelahan, 17, Alcoa High School in Blount County, Tenn.
At his school just south of Knoxville, Ian Whelahan said, students seem evenly split on the dangers of Covid-19.
“About half try to behave like everything is normal, and the others are paranoid,” he said, adding, “I’m one of the paranoid ones.”
At Alcoa High, on-campus classes are limited to one day a week. “My day on campus is Tuesday,” Ian said, “so I’ve been to two classes.” But it is nothing like what it was before the pandemic.
“The desks are configured so there is plenty of distance between them,” he said. “And we have to wear masks — except when we’re seated in the classrooms, and then it’s optional. And we’re encouraged to hurry between classes, so there’s not really any time to talk about Covid or anything else.”
He said some students do not pay attention to social distancing requirements, especially at lunch. “But there is solo seating, which is what I do,” he said.
Ian said he just wanted to stay focused on getting safely through his senior year, “so I can start college, hopefully when everything is back to normal.”
Peter Gunter, 15, Sequoyah High School in Canton, Ga.
Peter Gunter’s sophomore year began on Monday, and masks — which are recommended and worn by most students — were a big topic of conversation.
“It was very stressed, on the first day and the second day, that there will be no bullying to any students who decide to wear masks, or to not wear masks,” he said, “and any bullying that is done there could result in high penalties.”
Other changes abound: The water fountains are blocked off. Classroom seats are assigned to aid in possible contact tracing. During lunch period, classes are staggered into two smaller groups, with every other seat kept empty and no one eating across the table.
“It is kind of hard because I can’t have as many friends at the table at the same time, but it’s OK,” Peter said.
In his orchestra class, where Peter plays the cello, the chairs are spaced six feet apart. And there is no band or chorus: Wind instruments and singing could spread infection.
When the pandemic hit, Peter’s mother, a former science teacher, made masks for health care workers. “My mom and my dad, they’ve been stressing about how careful I need to be with this,” Peter said. So he washes his hands between every other class, and before and after eating. “We’re taking this very seriously.”
Kennedy Heim, 14, Elwood Junior-Senior High School in Indiana
On her second day of quarantine on Thursday, Kennedy said that she was feeling fatigued but that her case did not seem as bad as others she has heard about.
“I was a little scared” after getting the results on Wednesday, she said.
At least three or four other students she knows of have also tested positive at the school, she said, but she is not sure how she might have been infected — or if she could have infected anyone else.
“It came out of nowhere, and I don’t know who else I was around,” she said. She went to volleyball practice the week before starting school, but no one came within six feet of her, she said.
She also diligently wore her mask during her two days at school, she said, except while at lunch when eating. Whenever she tucked her mask beneath her nose, she would make sure others were not nearby.
Kennedy’s mother, Liz Wright, also started school last week — she is a second-grade teacher. Her school remains open even while the high school is closed for the week, with the students distance learning.
So now she and her daughter have quarantined from each other.
“I’m not going to lie, I have been skeptical about kids getting it,” Ms. Wright said. “But to be a part of this pandemic, it is a real thing. It’s not fun to have to FaceTime your daughter in the other room.”