The tile floors in Pillsbury Community School in northeast Minneapolis are shiny clean and streak-free — the telltale sign that students haven't walked the halls since last spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced them into distance learning.

That will change on Monday, when the school's youngest learners return to the building, where they will notice some changes.

Hand-washing stations now stand in the hallways, and air filtration systems whir in the corners of classrooms. Desks are placed at least 3 feet apart, and stickers on the floor mark where students can sit to practice social distancing. The children taking buses to and from school will have seating charts and ride with windows open.

"Being able to properly social distance was our teachers' biggest concern," Principal Jessica Skowronek said Wednesday as she led a tour of the building to point out new safety measures. Some classroom doors featured QR codes that staff members could use to join a video call with a teacher rather than entering their classroom. It's a way to help with contact tracing and limit staff interactions, Skowronek said.

"My goal is keep our building COVID-free," she said. "It's a lofty goal, but that's where I'm setting it."

Before the building tour for media on Wednesday, about 50 members of the Minneapolis teachers union gathered outside Pillsbury to continue to call for additional safety protocols and the delay of the schools reopening. They marched along the sidewalk, holding signs that read "I stand with Minneapolis educators."

The union last week filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Public Employment Relations Board and received a temporary restraining order from the courts that allows school staff to work remotely if they had previous work-from-home accommodations or are in the process of applying for them.

Many Minnesota school districts have been reopening since mid-January under new state guidelines.

Minneapolis pre-K and kindergarten students return Monday, followed by first and second grades later in the week. The oldest elementary students will return on Feb. 22, eventually bringing the total number of students in class to about 8,000. About 40% of the district's elementary students have opted to continue with distance learning. Schools are still in the process of finalizing class lists based on which students are in what learning model and which teachers qualify for accommodations, Superintendent Ed Graff said.

While recent weeks have proved a logistical challenge, Graff said he wants parents to know that school buildings are safe and the district is committed to keeping its students and staff healthy. The district-provided emergency child care, which has been operating throughout the pandemic, has also offered important lessons about which safety measures work best, he said.

"We know this is a very emotional decision for families, and there are strong opinions about whether or not we should be in person or in distance learning," Graff said. "I feel good that we have an opportunity to give [families] a choice."

Graff and other district leaders will host a live, online Q&A event on Saturday, from 10 a.m. to noon, to answer families' questions about the return to in-person learning. To watch and submit questions, visit

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440