PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Thousands of students in Providence returned to school on Thursday, the first time the district has been 100% in person since March 2020.

“I want to make sure that when the students come back they’re super, super, super excited,” said Dr. Javier Montañez, the acting superintendent, at an early morning news conference before school opened. “We were Zooming for so long, and now we’re in person and I can’t tell you how fabulous that is.”

This is the first new school year for Montañez, who was named interim superintendent in June and then later became the acting superintendent for the entire school year.

“They are going to be meeting new friends, meeting teachers, for the first time in a while,” he said. “My number one goal is they are back in person, having fun and learning.”

Providence has closed its Virtual Learning Academy, which was a standalone school last year, and has a new Freshman Academy this year on Branch Avenue, which is serving 9th-graders from Alvarez High School. The connected Fortes and Lima elementary schools have also now merged into one school called Fortes-Lima, since Achievement First opened a school inside the Fortes side of the complex.

The first day of school comes as the district works to fill 124 vacant teaching jobs, 73 of which are classroom teacher positions. As of Thursday 55 of those 73 classrooms had substitutes assigned to cover them, while 18 others were covered by various school staff.

Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and Gov. Dan McKee sought to downplay the numbers at the news conference.

“The numbers are similar to every year,” Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said. “There is no need to worry, the district is on it.”

Last year the numbers were much lower, with 22 clasroom vacancies at the start of the year. A spokesperson said in 2019 there were 102 classroom vacancies when school opened. The state turnaround plan, written during that school year, called for a decrease in the number of vacant teaching jobs at the start of each year.

“It’s not typical,” said Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union. “It’s a bad turn that’s happening. I think the substitute teachers will be doing their best. I’m not sure they all have the appropriate certifications to be in the positions they are in.”

This is the third school year since the state took control of the district, and the first since McKee’s office negotiated a new contract with the Providence Teachers Union. McKee has said he wants a direct role in oversight to better assist what education leaders have deemed a failing district.

“We continue to work to make sure we make significant improvements and growth in terms of our students in Providence,” McKee said.

Amid concerns about lost learning and chronic absenteeism during the pandemic, Infante-Green said the new RICAS scores would be released in Octobers. Students sat for the state assessment in the spring.

“I anticipate, like every other state that already has their scores, that there is going to be some sort of a drop,” Infante-Green said. She said parents would be able to access the scores on an app for the first time.

“Parents, we’re thinking about your kids,” she said. “What does your child need?”