The Ruch twins ate a special breakfast of mom's hashbrown egg bake and posed for a few photos Wednesday morning, then headed off for their first day of fifth grade in Minneapolis — at different schools.
Liam took his normal route to Burroughs Community School, and Lucy walked in the opposite direction toward Windom Community School, where she was assigned under Minneapolis Public Schools' comprehensive redesign. The morning marked the first day of class for the district and the official launch of the restructuring aimed at improving education equity across the city.
"It'll be weird not to see my brother at school," Lucy said. "There's a lot that's different."
Thousands of families like theirs were assigned to new campuses after the district redrew attendance boundaries and relocated magnet schools toward the center of the city. Liam got a lottery spot to stay at Burroughs. The twins' brother Charlie will start kindergarten at Windom on Friday, when Minneapolis' youngest students head to class.
The redesign was approved amid controversy in spring 2020. Many parents urged the district to delay reshuffling students during the COVID-19 pandemic that now stretches into a third academic year. But the district moved forward, and its leaders say they are prioritizing students' needs more than ever.
"I've heard some people say we're finally returning to business as usual," Superintendent Ed Graff said in a video message posted Wednesday morning. "I hope not. Instead, I hope that every student benefits from the very best of what we learned over the past 18 months."
Students in Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan and Osseo schools also began classes Wednesday. Anoka-Hennepin schools welcomed students back Tuesday, as did many metro charter schools and districts in greater Minnesota. St. Paul schools' first day back is Thursday.
Minneapolis schools are requiring masks in buildings and encouraging social distancing when possible. The Minneapolis teachers union, which is in negotiations with the district, is calling for additional safety protocols, including more guidance around quarantining after potential exposure.
In addition to reminders about masking policies, the district has spent the past few weeks telling families to brace for "sporadic" bus service and delays resulting from a severe driver shortage — one that also affects many other districts across Minnesota.
Several parents took to Facebook groups to report buses that were delayed or failed to show up, though district spokeswoman Julie Schultz Brown said the first week of school typically involves transportation issues and Wednesday morning didn't bring any surprises.
At Windom Community School, many buses arrived emptier than expected, likely because parents decided to walk their students to school.
Kerri Ruch noted the quiet on her block, where families used to gather at bus stops. In past years, families would meet in their driveways before walking their children to Burroughs. But after the reassignments and distance learning, some of them opted for private schools or schools in neighboring districts, Ruch said.
Despite her own frustrations about having to send her four children to three different schools this year — her oldest is a junior at Washburn High School — Ruch was focused on making Wednesday a day of positivity, particularly for Lucy. The fifth-grader stayed in distance learning last year, so returning to a classroom already was going to be an adjustment, even before she learned she'd be going to a new school.
Lucy's doodles over the past few days revealed her feelings on the matter: On one page, she colored her old school, Burroughs, with a smiling sun above it. On the next, she used markers to depict Windom with a black monster above it.
A third page showed a half sad, half upset face with a small smiley face within it. That represented her mixed emotions about having to go to a new school without her brother or closest friend, she said. The friends still wore matching "best friend" bracelets as part of their first-day outfits at different schools.
Upbeat guitar music, colorful chalk art and an archway made of balloons greeted Lucy and her mom at Windom's front door. Ruch embraced her daughter and gave her a reminder: "You've got this."
Wednesday afternoon, Lucy came home from her first day, smiling and talking excitedly about new friends, a nice teacher and a fun game at recess. She figures the next drawing in her notebook may still include a monster near the school building, but it'll be a lot smaller. And she'll put a sun behind the clouds.
Ruch said she heard from other parents who commented that Wednesday was the quietest their homes had been since the start of the pandemic.
"It's so nice to have that first day of school behind us," she said. "I think everybody is just so happy to get a little normalcy back."
Staff writer Erin Golden contributed to this report.
Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440