SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — After months of heated public debate and a courtroom battle, thousands of San Francisco elementary school students returned to in-class instructions beginning with the opening bell on Monday.

School Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews said 11 early education preschool sites, 22 elementary schools and three County schools in SFUSD will be reopening to some students for in-person learning.

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“Throughout April, SFUSD will continue to reopen school buildings, as well as to add more grade levels to schools that have already reopened for in-person learning,” officials said in a news release. “By the end of the month, SFUSD will likely have 107 school buildings reopened and an estimated 22,000 students returned to in-person learning.”

It’s been about 13 months since children have been able to physically go into their school and see their teachers and classmates.

“The first thing I’m going to do is give my friends a big air hug,” said Anijah Harrell, a 2nd grader at Bret Harte Elementary.

“He was so excited I don’t even think he could barely sleep,” said Monney Parker, the mother of a Bret Harte kindergartner. “He woke up this morning like, ‘First day of school?!’ Like, ‘Yeah! Let’s go!’ He had his clothes already ready, his lunch was packed.”

The excitement of returning to school was real for students, teachers, parents and San Francisco city officials.

“It took a lot of work and, honestly, it took a lot of people putting aside the drama and their differences and doing what’s in the best interest of the children,” said Mayor London Breed.

Breed also tweeted photos of her visit to Bret Harte.

Classrooms closed on March 15 last year. On Monday, pre-K through second grade returned to classrooms at 11 early education schools, 22 elementary schools and three county schools.

Next week will see older students in grades three through five. The remaining elementary schools will open in waves, returning about 22,000 students to in person learning.

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While thousands of elementary school students returned to class Monday, San Francisco school officials still have no plans to return middle and high school students to their classrooms for 5-day-a-week instructions until the 2021 academic year that begins on Aug. 16.

“I want us to be able to be in a better place and to do more and to allow more kids to be here,” said Breed. “But at the end of the day, this is better than what it was, so I’m just gonna appreciate this moment.”

However, the district is opening up in-person learning for some middle and high school students in at risk communities. That will happen on April 25th.

“We recognize that students and families will experience this last part of the school year in different ways and we want to be sensitive to that and meet students where they are,” Matthews said. “It will feel different from before the pandemic for so many reasons, including the health and safety protocols but schools are still places for connection and interaction.”

While San Francisco Unified does not have a plan to get most high school students back into classrooms yet, it is allowing high school athletes to resume practices and games starting Monday.

All of those sports are outdoors, including baseball, softball, soccer and track and field. Students are only allowed to play a single sport for the time being.

The road to the return has not been easy. San Francisco city officials took the district to court unsuccessfully, seeking a judge’s order to force the school reopening. Matthews then announced his resignation for June 2020 only to eventually delay his departure by a year.

The publicly elected Board of Education also continues to be focal point of criticism.

“We know returning to our school buildings are signs of hope for our students, their families and many of our community members,” said SF Board of Education President Gabriela Lopez in a news release. “Together we can continue to get us all back safely.”

Several safety measures will be in place in the reopened classrooms. Students will be required to wear masks and be socially distanced. A majority of teachers have been vaccinated and the district has set up a COVID-19 surveillance testing system.

Remote learning will also continue for students who do not return to the classroom.

Free lunch and snacks will be served at school for students returning to in-person learning and will stay free through the 2020-21 school year. Free Grab & Go meals for students in distance learning will continue to be available, but with some changes.

“While this is a momentous occasion, it is not the full return needed for all students in the district,” Matthews said in the release. “Some students and families don’t want to return yet and some who want to return will not be able to at this time. Classes are still one community and all students are equally important members. No matter whether students are at home or at school, every student is a part of their school and classroom community.”

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Emily Turner contributed to this story.