Once she got the 12:46 a.m. text message from the Office of Personnel Management that she should return to her job at the Department of Education on Thursday, Zina Watkins jumped up and started ironing clothes to get ready.

“I was excited,” said Watkins, who lives in Prince William County and works on adult education programs.

Watkins and other furloughed employees at the Education Department returned to overflowing inboxes and serial meetings as they figured out how to attack the backlog that had accumulated over two weeks.

Some workers were reading more than 200 applications from the department’s newest Race to the Top competition among school districts vying for $120 million in grants. Applications were due last Friday — despite the shutdown — and program officers were wading through stacks of paperwork.

There was also a fresh batch of applications for the department’s Race to the Top contest for early-learning programs, which had been due Wednesday.

Bill Moser, an IT specialist, spent hours helping other employees log into their computers, which they had trouble accessing because the machines had been updated with security software during the shutdown. It took some up to 40 minutes to log on, he said.

Still, the day had a distinctly back-to-school vibe, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan was eager to play principal.

He strode through the carpeted hallways of his department Thursday, seemingly intent on welcoming back each of his 4,200 furloughed employees.

“Hey, what’s going on?” said Duncan, as he poked his 6-foot-4 frame around cubicle partitions on the 11th floor of one of the agency’s offices. “I’m Arne. What’s happening? Thanks for coming back.”

He shook hands, posed for pictures and thanked his employees for weathering the shutdown. Thursday also happened to coincide with the agency’s birthday — it was 34 years ago that President Jimmy Carter signed legislation to create a Cabinet-level Department of Education.

In Christina Anzelmo’s office, Duncan accepted a homemade cookie and told a trio of managers that he was relieved to see desk chairs filled and copying machines humming.

“I never felt so helpless,” he said, describing what it was like to run a sprawling agency with a skeleton crew of about 240 excepted workers. Excepted workers, in federal government terms, are those who are required to work during a shutdown.

“You miss everything,” Duncan said. “The people, the camaraderie. You don’t realize how much until something like this happens. The building was empty. It was dark, it was quiet. It felt awful. ”

But on Thursday in the hallways and cafeteria (the department was the only federal agency in the L’Enfant Plaza neighborhood with a fully functioning cafeteria), employees talked about their spick-and-span homes, organized closets, mowed lawns — all byproducts of their forced time away from work.

“There are a lot of clean windows and garages throughout the D.C. region,” said Massie Ritsch, the deputy assistant secretary for external affairs.

Duncan sent an e-mail blast in the morning addressed to members of the “ED Family” and suggested that the 16-day partial government shutdown had forged familial bonds throughout the bureaucracy.

“I would normally start a message to all of you with ‘Dear Colleagues,’ ” Duncan wrote. “But what has been normal about the last three weeks? Given what we’ve all been through — and the support I’ve seen so many of you give to your coworkers — ‘family’ seems like a better way to acknowledge the ties that we at this agency have to each other and to the vital work we do together.”

During the shutdown, Duncan called a couple of dozen furloughed employees, just to see how they were faring.

One was Jocelyn Logan-Friend, who was at home in Cheverly, in Prince George’s County, organizing her things when her cellphone rang. “I didn’t recognize the number, so I didn’t answer,” she said.

When she listened to the voice mail later, she was surprised.

“It was just a very kind gesture,” said Logan-Friend, who works in the office of special education and had seen Duncan in person only once before, at a large staff meeting.

When he came by her department Thursday, she thanked him for his call.