VICTORIA -- Pupils gathered outside their schools and lined up two metres apart for the first day of voluntary, in-classroom sessions on Monday.

The mood outside Victoria West Elementary school was a mixture of excitement and nervousness.

Brian Hardey said it was the right thing for his two children, both in Grade 3.

“They prefer teachers for the teaching and parents for the parenting,” he said, after dropping them off.

Angela Gallagher is a single working mother. She said she had mixed feelings about the return to school, but thought it was in the best interest of her young daughter.

“I’m doing it for her mental health,” Gallagher said. “Social interaction at this age is really important for younger kids.”

Layla Friend is in Grade 3 at Willows Elementary School. She said that despite the adjustments to schooling in the classroom, like physical distancing, she was still glad to be back at school.

“I’m happy that I get to be back at school, because I can see my friends,” she said.

That enthusiasm was shared by Dwayne Doyle, the principal of Marigold Elementary school in Saanich. He said the excitement was palpable for the kids

“The schools are not schools without kids,” Doyle remarked. “The energy, the chatter, the movement, even though they are six feet apart in the classrooms.”

While the children of essential workers have been allowed back at school for weeks, Monday marked the first day that all students were allowed to return to the classroom.

Students in kindergarten through Grade 5 can be in classrooms two days a week, while older students can return for a maximum of just 20 per cent of the week.

The B.C. government says that about 35 per cent of all students across the province elected to return to the classroom this week, with a somewhat higher percentage on Vancouver Island.

Despite some ongoing concerns from some parents, and even an online petition with more than 33,000 signatures demanding that schools not reopen, the government says it’s taken the needed steps to keep everyone safe.

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming noted Monday that provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has repeatedly said that the return to school is safe – and that parents could take comfort in her message.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think we could safely do so is the kind of assurance parents are looking for,” said Fleming.

"I think what you’re going to see today is that kids returned to school and did really well," he said. "Teachers were thrilled to see their students again."

How the next month goes in classrooms, along with whether the coronavirus has a second outbreak over the summer or early fall, will have a big impact on what school looks like in September.