Call it Academic Opening Day. Or the great School Tip-Off. Maybe kickoff?

Tuesday marks the first day of school for most Minnesota students — more than 800,000 kids are heading back into the classroom for a new year.

At Eagle Ridge Middle School in Savage, Samiya Maow said she couldn't sleep the night before she started sixth grade. She was nervous, excited and a little afraid of the new schedule of moving from class to class, unlike elementary school.

"You don't have to go to just one class," she said. "It's a lot."

Tim Lundahl, who teaches sixth grade science at the middle school, greeted new students as they stepped off the bus.

Seventh and eighth grade students start the school year at Eagle Ridge virtually so that sixth-graders have the campus to themselves. The younger students begin their day with an assembly where eighth-graders tell them what to expect and how to navigate the transition from elementary to middle school.

"It gives them a greater level of comfort," he said of the first day's structure.

Free meals for all

The day at many schools kicked off with breakfast — now free for all students, as is lunch — after the state Legislature passed a bill making meals free for students in public schools and some private institutions.

As first graders filtered into the cafeteria at Hidden Valley Elementary in Savage for lunch, a nutritional worker asked for a PIN before handing them a tray and ushering them into line. The numbers help school staff keep track of how many meals they serve so they can get a federal reimbursement.

Hidden Valley Principal Kristine Black said the school has always had a high proportion of students who qualify for free lunch. But rolling out the free meals program, particularly the expanded breakfast offerings, reduces the stigma often attached to school meals. It's also less paperwork for families and it ensures every pupil returns to class ready to learn.

"This is going to take away so many barriers," Black said. "It's a blessing for students and it's a blessing for families. They learn better when they eat well."

Building culture for academic success

Educators are still grappling with slides in math and reading proficiency that preceded the pandemic but were exacerbated by the extended length of time students were out of the classroom. Legislators and educators hope a renewed focus on phonics in the classroom and a slate of state-approved reading programs reverse the trend.

In Savage, Eagle Ridge Principal David Helke said educators expect students have some catching up to do academically. A big step toward that comes through making the school a place students want to be.

He's looking forward to helping students at start their own affinity groups — a rarity at the middle school level. Building that community helps mitigate disruptive behavior, he said, and sets students up for academic success, too.

"So much of our work here has to be rooted in supporting them in this way so they can succeed academically," Helke said.

At South High in Minneapolis, Afolabi Runsewe's goal for the year is to keep students engaged and coming to class. Attendance is the key to students staying on track for graduation, he said.

"This is going to be a great year," he said while walking the hallways, greeting students by name and offering fist bumps.

Eleri Peterson, also a sophomore, said even after going to her classes and sitting through lunch, she wasn't ready to accept that the school year has officially started.

"I don't really believe it's the first day," Peterson said. "I want to believe it's still summer."

A hot start in some schools

Summery weather with temperatures approaching 90 degrees by early afternoon made the first day more challenging in schools without air conditioning in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Minneapolis has 10 schools without air conditioning.

In a statement released Monday, the district reminded students and staff to stay hydrated and take precautions in the heat. It encouraged school staff to use fans, close the blinds, and "know your plan to rotate students and staffed to cool places."

St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard said 43 % of district buildings are air-conditioned, and in those that are not, the district was trying to have students stay in areas that were a bit cooler.

Bringing in outside air was problematic given the poor outdoor air quality.

"So we know that today will be a challenge," he said.

More changes for a new year

The new school year will also bring a host of other changes.

Bathrooms will be stocked with free menstrual products as a result of legislation aimed at reducing inequity among students who can't afford pads and tampons. And some school safety drills will look a little different than they did before — students will undergo an hour of violence prevention training during the year and teachers must host classroom discussions after lockdown and lock-out drills.

School resource officer programs will also look different on some campuses amid debate over a controversial new law that limits student restraints. The disagreement prompted law enforcement to pull officers from schools in Moorhead, among other districts. Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest district, lost all but one of its school resource officers.

In places such as the Rochester, Bloomington and South Washington County districts, however, police departments will still station officers in middle and high schools.

Up early for a fresh start

In Minneapolis, more than 200 freshman trickled into Edison High School on Tuesday morning as staff waved pompoms and greeted them in a variety of languages. Upperclassmen were set to come later in the morning.

Principal Eryn Warne helped direct buses and cars and waved at parents as they dropped off their students.

Many of the parents tried giving last minute advice — "Make the most of it!" — out the car windows as their teens headed inside. Few of them even looked back.

A few students lingered on benches by the front door, heads bent over their cell phones. Warne greeted them cheerfully, asking, "When was the last time you were up this early?"

Wendy Bonete, a bilingual assistant at Edison, helped a handful of new students get their schedules and navigate their first morning at an American high school. Many of them moved to the U.S. over the summer, mostly from Ecuador. Others came from Somalia and Afghanistan.

"It's exciting to see them starting their education here," she said.

Freshman Adna Ali moved from Somalia at the end of June.

"I am scared and excited," she said. "It's the first day, so it's new."

Check back with throughout the day for news updates on the first day of school.