Underneath her winter coat on Monday morning, Jefferson Community School Principal Holly Kleppe wore a tool belt stocked with essential back-to-school supplies: a bottle of hand sanitizer and several kid-sized masks.

"You've grown so much since I saw you," she said to one boy, her face shield fogging up in the subzero temperatures. "It's so different to see you in person rather than on a screen."

Minneapolis schools, shuttered since the pandemic's onset, began reopening Monday by bringing in a wave of preschool and kindergarten students who opted for in-person learning. First- and second-graders will come back later this week, followed by third- through fifth-graders on Feb. 22.

Many other Minnesota districts opened their doors to students in mid-Janury, after Gov. Tim Walz issued new guidance for getting the state's youngest students back in the classrooms, provided schools follow safety guidelines. Schools must still offer a distance learning option, and Minneapolis has said about 40% of its elementary students will continue learning from home.

Because of the frigid temperatures on Monday morning, there was little time for sentimentality or posing for "first day" photos in front of Jefferson in the city's Uptown area. Still, staff members enthusiastically greeted each student and waved at the parents who were dropping off their children.

Students were gently reminded to stay a few feet apart from each other as they approached the building. Kleppe demonstrated what she calls "the zombie walk," and the bundled-up kids followed her lead by stretching out their arms in front of their chests. It's a fun way to ensure social distancing and keep students from touching surfaces before they wash their hands, Kleppe said.

"This week is all about teaching those rituals and routines," Kleppe said. "That's education and that's what we're good at."

Minneapolis schools took steps to prep the elementary schools for students' return. Hand washing stations were added, as were air filtration systems. Desks were spaced at least 3 feet apart and teachers were given portable plexiglass shields to use when working with a student up close.

Bashir Omar dropped two of his children off at Jefferson and had to offer a little encouragement to his son, who admitted to being a little scared. But the nerves were mixed with enthusiasm, Omar said.

"They are so happy, so excited," he said.

Vanisa Ford said her 4-year-old daughter has been begging to go to "real school" instead of learning online. Ford has also been looking forward to sending her daughter to in-person classes, which she said will free her to work more hours.

"I feel great," she said after watching Elizabeth head inside with her mask on and backpack slung over her shoulders.

"Having her do school at home was a drag," Ford said. "I can actually go find better work now to pay the bills."

Two signs opposing the return to in-person classes were strung up on the playground fencing at Jefferson. One read, "Kids aren't Covid safe," and the other, "lives > test scores."

The Minneapolis teachers union has continued to call for additional safety protocols and the delay of the schools reopening in the city. It filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Public Employment Relations Board and received a temporary restraining order from the court. That court order allows school staff to work remotely if they had previous work-from-home accommodations or are in the process of applying for them.

A half-dozen buses brought Jefferson's youngest learners to school on Monday, though just a few students rode each bus. To limit possible COVID-19 exposure on the buses, Minneapolis schools are using seating charts for the riders and blocking off the first rows of seats behind the bus driver. State guidance recommends opening windows on the buses or, in cases of bad weather, using the heating systems at full power to provide added ventilation.

Despite all of the changes and added precautions, the school day is still about learning and about building relationships with students, Kleppe said.

"We're just really happy to be back and to see the joy in kids' faces," she said. "That joy is definitely here."

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440