By Howard Monroe

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Philadelphia School District students returned for full-time, in-person learning on Tuesday. It was the first time they’ve been in the classroom since March of 2020.

“I’m looking forward to seeing my friends because I’ve only been able to see them through a little glass screen,” 6th grader Eman Clark said.

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There’s no more need for virtual hangouts for Eman Clark and her friends. After over a year and a half of virtual and hybrid learning, she and her 6th-grade classmates at the Science Learning Academy are back to in-person learning.

“Oh my goodness! I’m so elated they get to see their friends in school, so I’m excited. Super excited,” mother Nydja Clark said.

But the excitement for parents and students is anxiety for Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Dr. William Hite.

“We’re really excited. A little anxious and nervous, and some anxiety about that but it’s a good anxiety,” Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Dr. William Hite said.

The district welcomed back over 100,000 students for the first time since March 2020. All of the district’s schools are now equipped with COVID safety protocols that include mask mandates for all and a recently added vaccine mandate for staff.

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If there are any positive cases, the district has strict protocols to follow to contain any outbreaks. Once a student tests positive, the entire school community will be notified. And any student who had close contact would be quarantined for 10 days. Masks are required in buildings and vaccines are required for staff. If there is a serious outbreak the city’s department of health would determine if the school should close. Despite the risk, Dr. Hite says in-person learning must begin again.

“We didn’t know what to expect but seeing the young people back, we can return to what people know how to do and that’s to serve children,” Hite said.

Dr. Hite and Mayor Jim Kenney welcomed students back to the brand-new school building that houses the Powell Elementary School and Science Learning Academy. For students across the district class arrival and dismissal times changed this school year. Hite says the changes are for uniformity. The district had nearly 30 different start and end times. The changes led City Councilmember Helen Gym and a group of ten state legislators to ask the district to rethink the bell changes. They cited student safety and well-being and preserving parents’ jobs.

“Especially high schoolers who are now being asked to come to school as much as 45 minutes to an hour earlier which means that they could be on public transportation when it gets dark,” Gym said. “To Elementary school children, some of whom are often up at the crack of dawn and have working parents who really need them to be in school at an appropriate time.”

But the start of the school year comes with some controversy. Teachers have been protesting outside of Masterman School in the city’s Spring Garden neighborhood. Teachers there have refused to enter the building, citing concerns over asbestos and other environmental concerns. Dr. Hite says he understands their concerns but says the job has to get done.

“At the end of the day they have to make a choice and that choice is if you don’t feel comfortable and you don’t want to come in, you were hired to do a job and we’re going to expect you to do that job,” Dr. Hite said.

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Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers says, their contract expires at midnight. The spokesperson for the union says they’re on the brink of striking. Negotiations for the contract continue Tuesday.