It's been months in the making, and it's hard to tell who was more excited about the return to face-to-face learning at schools across the region on Monday.
Smiling faces and squeals of excitement greeted teachers at Barrack Heights Public School early Monday morning, as their youngest students ran under the balloon arch in the school colours.
Principal Skye Ramsay said staff couldn't wait to welcome their students back to class, while parents were relieved to have their children back where they belonged.
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Kindergarten, Year 1 and Year 12 students were the first to get back to schools across the region after an extended lockdown, while the remaining year groups will return next Monday.
Mrs Ramsay said she felt "like a child on Christmas morning" seeing the students return to school after so many weeks of home learning.
"It was so great to welcome them back and see their smiling faces," she said. "We're now keen to launch into learning and leave the lockdown period behind us."
Mrs Ramsay said her staff had been "truly incredible" over the past few months, using learnings from the school lockdown in 2020 to inform their teaching this time round.
"Our staff always put the needs of the children first and went above and beyond to create memorable and engaging learning experiences, each and every week," she said.
"They stayed connected with our families and it was truly a partnership as we navigated the home learning environment together.
"The staff at Barrack Heights, especially the teachers, were shining stars of our public education system."
COVID-safe protocols remain in place to ensure the safety of students and staff.
"All staff are wearing masks and it's highly recommended students wear masks too," Mrs Ramsay said.
"We have expansive grounds so use different gates to stem the flow of students in and out of school, and we have separate play areas for different year groups.
"We are also fortunate that we have a lot of natural ventilation through our classrooms, so there's plenty of fresh air flowing through."
It's been a very different first year of school for Kindergarten students, and six-year-old Isla Kerr said she was "really excited" to return.
She said "playing with my friends and getting to walk through the balloons at the gate" was the best part of her day.
Madeline Maynard, also six, said she missed her teacher and her friends during home schooling and mum Megan said she'd been busy preparing for the return to school for the past week.
"She's spent all week packing her backpack and getting everything just right," Mrs Maynard said.
"She's really excited to see her teacher and her friends."
With an eight-year-old daughter Annabelle also being home schooled, and two-year-old son Oliver to also care for, it's been a busy time in the Maynard household.
"I have been surprised how well the girls have adjusted and just got on with it," she said.
"The hardest thing was trying to give my son some attention, while a lot of my time was taken up home schooling.
"At least we know we can do it - but ideally we don't want to do it again."
Illawarra students were among more than 148,000 students across the state returning over the next week.
Premier Dominic Perrottet said following the positive reception and uptake of the 2021 program, the NSW Government was committing an additional $383 million to continue to support students next year.
"We know our students are resilient but there's no doubt that 2021 has been a tough year, with many students learning from home for twice as long as last year," he said.
"Early insights from the ongoing evaluation of the program show that students are bouncing back thanks to the intensive tutoring delivered through the program, and we are committed to helping them do so again next year."
Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said the education department would work with schools and key stakeholder groups during Term 4 to refine the program to ensure the greatest benefit was delivered for students who needed it most.