Several of Minnesota's largest school districts intend to bring their youngest students back for in-person instruction next month, following Gov. Tim Walz's announcement that elementary schools could reopen as soon as Jan. 18.

Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest district, told families that it plans to start shifting elementary students from distance to full-time, in-person instruction starting Jan. 19. Similar messages went out from school leaders in the Elk River, Osseo and Robbinsdale districts.

The St. Cloud Area School District said it would start bringing elementary students back for hybrid instruction that week, and Duluth Public Schools indicated that it would aim for "at least" hybrid instruction for elementary schools by mid- to late January.

St. Paul Public Schools, the state's second-largest district, plans to move preschool through second-grade students to full-time, in-person learning on Feb. 1, with students in grades 3-5 to follow on Feb. 16, Superintendent Joe Gothard said Thursday.

Several other metro districts, including Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan and Wayzata, are still sorting out their plans but have indicated strong interest in bringing elementary students back to classrooms in the first months of 2021.

Schools planning to reopen will have to navigate a maze of logistics, and many have already cautioned that their plans are tentative. Staffing is a top concern, particularly because many districts moved into distance learning primarily because so many teachers and staff members were ill or quarantined because of COVID-19 symptoms or exposure.

But if they can clear those hurdles, school leaders appear determined to bring thousands of students back to classrooms next month.

"We are really excited to get kids back in school, and we want to make that happen," said Rick Kaufman, community relations director and emergency management coordinator for Bloomington Public Schools, which aims to bring elementary students back to buildings in January.

The governor's Wednesday announcement left many districts scrambling to come up with a plan and quickly communicate it to families.

Once the news was out, many districts sent notes to families letting them know that changes could be coming — but that they needed more time before they could share specifics.

Districts and charter schools that want to move from distance to in-person learning next month will have to follow an expanded list of safety guidelines. Among them: teachers and staff members must wear both face masks and face shields, and schools must offer COVID-19 testing to staff every two weeks. Schools must also bring students back in phases: Only three grade levels can return for two weeks before students in additional grade levels can join them.

It will be a big shift for the many Minnesota school districts that are now fully or partly in distance learning. Nearly all metro schools are in full distance learning, and some expected they'd remain there for at least a few months, based on how the state and schools had previously made reopening decisions.

Middle and high schools in distance learning will likely stay online for the foreseeable future; decisions about in-person, hybrid or distance learning for them will still be largely based on how much the virus is spreading in counties and local communities.

In a message on the district's website, Eastern Carver County Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams said district leaders are taking time to make sure they can put together a "safe and thoughtful reopening plan," and that she'd have a more specific update by Dec. 23. She said she understands the urgency for families that have been scrambling to adapt to schedule changes and balance jobs and school schedules, but she said planning for a shift between learning models takes time.

"I know our patience is stretched," she wrote. "I know that these decisions have very real implications on our community's home and work situations. I know we want our students back in school."

Minneapolis Public Schools, which has been in distance learning since the start of the school year, told families they'd receive an update during the upcoming winter break, but it did not outline potential changes. Mounds View and Rochester said they'd share plans by Jan. 8.

Stephanie Burrage, interim superintendent for Robbinsdale Public Schools, said the district's tentative plans to bring students back in mid-January will be re-evaluated after winter break. In the meantime, she's already fielding questions from teachers and parents. Some are excited and others are worried. She's trying to answer questions, make contingency plans and allay fears, but she knows getting everyone on board with any plan is a big lift.

"Is everyone going to be happy? I don't think so in this situation," she said. "We're still in a pandemic — that is a big deal."

Staff Writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790