Standing in front of a table of disposable masks and hand sanitizer, Principal Christian Alberto Ledesma greeted his students in person for the first time in more than a year. He offered "good mornings" and waves, even sticking his foot out to bump shoes with a student as a socially distanced welcome to Wellstone International High School in south Minneapolis.

"They can't see how much I'm smiling through my mask," he said. "It's exciting to actually have people in the building instead of just hearing their voices over a computer."

About 100 students arrived at Wellstone for in-person classes Monday, marking the first time Minneapolis high schoolers were back in school buildings since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, when instruction went online. The other 80 or so students at the school opted to keep learning from home.

Middle schoolers across Minneapolis will return to in-person instruction next week. The city's elementary schools began reopening in February.

Schools must still offer a distance learning option, and secondary teachers in Minneapolis will be teaching both in-person and remote students simultaneously four days a week. The fifth weekday is set aside for distance learning, teacher planning and student-teacher meetings.

St. Paul will reopen its middle and high schools on Wednesday. The district will offer in-person classes four days a week for a shortened school day, allowing teachers to focus on their in-classroom students for part of the day before shifting to teaching distance learners.

About one-third of St. Paul's 17,800 secondary students have opted to stick with distance learning.

In Minneapolis, Ledesma said Monday morning felt like the "second first day of school," but there were noticeable differences inside the building. Desks were spaced at least 3 feet apart to ensure social distancing and many teachers wore masks and face shields and used plastic shields around their desks.

"It looks a little clinical," Ledesma said. "But once we're all together with people that we know, there will be that energy again. It'll soon feel warm and welcoming in those classrooms."

Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440