Instead of creating fun name tags for the kindergartners in her class, first-year teacher Katie Falk is compiling e-mail addresses to communicate with those students’ parents.

It’s one of the countless ways the COVID-19 pandemic and distance learning has created a reality far different from what Falk had envisioned for the start of her teaching career at Lake Harriet Lower Community School in Minneapolis.

“My first reaction is one of feeling overwhelmed,” she said. “But I also know that this really offers room to grow as a teacher.”

School districts across the state are seeking creative ways to support first-year teachers as they prepare them for an unprecedented year with additional stresses, from distance learning to COVID-19 precautions in the classroom.

Minneapolis Public Schools held a two-day virtual orientation for educators who are new to the district. Osseo Area Schools, which normally hosts a week of orientation activities, created online meetings and videos that staff could watch on their own time. Bloomington Public Schools opted for virtual presentations and small group meetings, with additional plans for regular check-ins and virtual meetings between new staff and mentor teachers.

“It’s already hard to be a first-year teacher, and now there’s new challenges,” said Emily Ruth Olson, who oversaw the new teacher orientation for Minneapolis Public Schools. “But in some ways, all of our teachers are in their first year of this.”

Hybrid teaching, with a mix of online learning and in-person lessons, is new this year no matter how much experience a teacher has. Some will be trying to teach students in their classrooms and distance learners at the same time. And distance learning means teachers are using new tools and crafting lesson plans to fit that format.

Falk said it’s reassuring to know she’s not the only one new to navigating the education of children from afar.

“I still just want to be the best teacher I can be,” she said. “That doesn’t change.”

While it’s impossible to replicate the in-person experience of gathering for orientation, school district leaders said the virtual options worked well. Teachers were still able to introduce themselves and connect with one another through video and messaging, and small group discussions ran smoothly online, Olson said.

School leaders are also finding creative ways to help new hires feel welcome. Osseo Area Schools offered a drive-by lunch and meet-and-greet for its new staff, and the principal of Lake Harriet Lower met with first-year teachers and created goodie bags for them, complete with a T-shirt and welcoming note.

Going forward, the challenge will be finding ways to provide ongoing support to freshmen educators.

“We are now having to think differently about how to offer those professional development opportunities,” Olson said. “[We’re] pushing ourselves to be creative.”

Olson also wants her team to be cognizant of the ways virtual training sessions may prove advantageous. Gone are the logistics of arranging tables and chairs and finding a space big enough for a large group. That means she can enroll teachers in a session at the last minute without worrying about capacity.

The topics of professional development programs typically offered to new teachers may also be tweaked to meet the particular requirements of teaching amid a pandemic. Equity and social emotional learning, which includes skills like self and social awareness and relationship building, will continue to be a focus of the training offered by Minneapolis schools, Olson said, particularly as distance learning can exacerbate inequalities for students.

So far, Wanda Carter, a first-year special education teacher at River Bend Education Center in Minneapolis, said she’s felt supported even as she worries about how to virtually replicate hands-on work and relationship-building activities.

“There’s a lot going through my mind right now,” Carter said. “I’m just taking all the resources and advice, whatever can help my students progress.”

Falk said she’s ready to embrace the ways this year will be different from the one she’d imagined. Even her job interviews last spring were conducted virtually, so she’s had to adapt.

She spent time decorating a sort of “mini classroom” complete with a bulletin board that will serve as the backdrop of her video lessons. She’ll start her mornings there to greet her students and lead them through a few activities.

“Of course I was hoping to do that all in-person, and its heartbreaking,” she said, adding her students and their parents were also picturing that monumental first day of walking into the kindergarten classroom. “But we’re going to grow and we’re going to figure it out.”