NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — Thousands of kids in New Haven headed back to school Monday, kicking off the 2022-23 school year.

It’s a day many children look forward to, including Molly, the daughter of New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker. After a hug from mom and dad, she’s off to class, where she and her classmates can expect a few changes.

“It’s going to be a lot different than last year,” the mayor said. “Masks are not mandatory. The schools are mask-friendly environments.”

At Barnard Magnet School, a group of fathers showed up to cheer as students filed into the building because they the importance of support and a good education.

“Some kids look forward to this day, so we want to pump them up,” supporter Kristen Threatt said. “For the kids that didn’t look forward to this day, we want to pump them as well and let them know that they got the support out here.”

Reducing absenteeism remains a top priority for Elicker and Dr. Iline Tracey, the superintendent of New Haven Public Schools. Last year, the district faced an absenteeism rate of 58%, which means students missed 10 or more days of school.

“We’re getting out the message to families through our community family engagement. We’ve held rallies, back to school openings. We may have gone door to door,” Tracey said.

This school year is the closest to a “normal” back-to-school season most students have seen in three years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s so important that they learn,” Elicker said. “Our math and reading test scores, frankly, are pretty bad. We need to do a lot of work as a whole community, but parents need to make sure they’re getting their kids to school and helping the kids in the evening.”

Follow News 8’s complete Back-to-School coverage here.