Schools across Maharashtra resumed physical sessions for classes 5 to 12 on Monday after being shut for over a year-and-a-half in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with students being welcomed back on campuses with flowers, balloons, sanitisers and social distancing protocols.
Students appeared excited while entering the schools and meeting their friends, classmates and teachers after a long gap.
At the school gates, authorities ensured that all the students wore proper masks and sanitised their hands before entering the premises, and only one student was asked to sit on a single bench in classrooms.
Chief minister Uddhav Thackeray said the decision to reopen schools was a "very difficult" one, and appealed to teachers and parents to take care of the students.
Until now, schools were conducting physical classes only in those areas which were reporting relatively fewer COVID-19 cases.
Last month, Maharashtra's school education minister Varsha Gaikwad had announced that physical classes will resume in schools across the state and the government also issued standard operating procedures (SOPs) for it.
On Monday morning, the minister in a tweet said, "Wishing all parents and students the very best as schools reopen across the state today. We hope you enjoy your first day back in a safe atmosphere."
According to the Maharashtra government, physical sessions have started for classes 5 to 12 in rural areas and for classes 8 to 12 in urban areas of the state.
But, the physical classes have not yet been resumed for classes 1 to 4 in rural areas and for classes 1 to 7 in urban areas.
As per SOPs issued by the state government for the reopening of schools, it is not mandatory for students to attend physical classes. If they want to attend, they will have to submit consent letters from their parents.
CM Thackeray on Monday unveiled the logo of a campaign called 'My Student: My Responsibility' in the presence of minister Gaikwad and other dignitaries at his official resistance 'Varsha' in south Mumbai.
Speaking on the occasion, Thackeray said the decision to reopen school was a "very difficult" one.
"Today, we are seeing the gates of schools have opened, but it is not just the gates which have opened, it is the door of their future and progress. The decision was taken very carefully," Thackeray said, adding that he always consulted the task force concerned before taking such decisions.
The chief minister said this was the most difficult and challenging time in the lives of students, and appealed to parents and teachers to take proper care of students.
"Take the responsibility of your child. If a teacher does not feel well, he/she should undergo a test immediately," he said.
Thackeray also suggested keeping doors and windows of classrooms open for proper aeration, disinfecting them when students are not around and keeping classrooms and toilets clean. He also asked authorities to ensure that students wear masks and follow the social distancing norms.
"We will continue our education with the determination not to close schools once they are opened," Thackeray said.
Before the function, Gaikwad visited a few schools in Mumbai, including a municipal school in Colaba area, and interacted with students and teachers.
Mumbai Mayor Kishori Pednekar also visited a municipal school in Worli area and spoke to teachers and students there.
At a school in suburban Jogeshwari, teachers and school management members showered flower petals on students when they entered the premises.
Various schools welcomed the students with 'rangolis' (colourful traditional patterns), flowers and balloons on the first day of reopening of the institutions.
Many students seemed excited after coming back to school and meeting their classmates and teachers physically.
In neighbouring Pune, students were seen excited while entering their schools and authorities welcomed them back.
Anagha Mande, principal of the city-based Ahilyadevi High School For Girls, "We made special arrangements to welcome students on the campus. Masks and sanitisers were distributed to students on their arrival."
A person dressed up as a clown was seen welcoming students at the Rajiv Gandhi Academy of E-Learning School & Science Junior College, and teachers greeted the students with flowers.
At many places, instead of the school transport, parents came to drop the students outside the educational institutions.
"Even though the offline classes have resumed, we made the online session of the same available for students who are joining classes from home," said a principal of another school while welcoming students back on the campus.
NCP MP Supriya Sule visited a zilla parishad school in Pune and welcomed the students with flowers.
"With the arrival of students, the schools (vidyamandirs) have once again been truly beautified," the Lok Sabha member from Baramati in Pune said in a tweet.
Maharashtra Headmaster Association state spokesperson Mahendra Ganpule told PTI that schools in Pune city and rural areas of the district were following all SOPs laid down by the state government for the resumption of physical classes.
In neighbouring Thane, district collector Rajesh Narvekar and city mayor Naresh Mhaske visited the Saraswati Secondary School where the two studied many years ago. Both of them later said the trip made them emotional.
Mhaske rang the bell after the first period and said, "This brought back memories of my childhood when I wanted to do it, but could not. The bell of a school is no less important than the ones in temples."
Narvekar, who is also from the same school, said he was emotional while visiting his alma mater after a gap of 38 years.
The IAS officer took a session for Class 10 in Marathi on the importance of education for women.
The Maharashtra education department conducted a meeting on Sunday to take stock of the situation before resuming physical classes in schools.
"For a smooth transition to physical classes, effective coordination with the health department, local administration will have to be maintained. We are committed to providing a conducive atmosphere to students, many among whom will be returning to class after a year and a half," minister Gaikwad had tweeted after the meeting.
Last month, Gaikwad said that as per a survey conducted by the school education department, more than 70 per cent parents favoured reopening of schools.
In Maharashtra, physical classes in schools were stopped in March 2020, after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state government in July this year allowed schools to restart physical classes in the rural areas where COVID-19 prevalence was negligible. The decision mainly benefited the state's Vidarbha region, but schools in major cities like Mumbai and Pune remained closed.
The latest decision was taken after consulting health officials and the state government's COVID-19 task force, Gaikwad earlier said.