Thousands of Minnesota's youngest students will return to classrooms this week after spending weeks — or months — in distance learning, marking a second first day of school in this pandemic school year.

Students who have been spending their days at home in front of computer screens will again pour out of school buses and into classrooms, greet friends and talk to their teachers face-to-face. Some will be meeting their teachers and classmates for the first time, halfway through the academic year. For students and staff in distance learning since the pandemic began, it will be the first day back after 10 months at home. With new people to meet, routines to learn — or relearn — and the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, it's a week for an unprecedented kind of back-to-school jitters.

"It is kind of that giddy and exciting feeling," said Marti Voight, interim assistant superintendent for Robbinsdale Area Schools, "and at the same time, you're feeling nervous and worried about different things than you would have been last year when coming in for the first day of school."

A small number of Minnesota schools have had students in person for the majority of the school year. But most public districts and charter schools have bounced between in-person, hybrid and distance learning over the past several months, depending on local spread of the virus and staffing shortages prompted by teachers ill or in quarantine.

By Thanksgiving, with COVID-19 cases surging in Minnesota, the majority of schools were in full distance learning and looked to remain there for the foreseeable future.

But in mid-December, the governor announced a significant change of plans: Elementary schools could reopen for full-time, in-person instruction starting Jan. 18, provided they could follow expanded safety protocols and have enough available staff. The move to prioritize in-person learning for young students will happen in waves, with most schools bringing back kindergarten, first- and second-graders this week, followed by older elementary students in February.

Many middle and high schools now in distance learning are likely to remain there for some time; transitions back to in-person learning for secondary schools will still be based on how much the virus is spreading in local communities, among other factors. Distance learning remains an option in all districts, for all grade levels.

Districts across the state have handed out face shields to teachers — "strongly recommended" to be worn in addition to face masks — installed plexiglass barriers and set up new virus-testing protocols. They're now awaiting elementary students' return.

State and school district officials say they know more than they did months ago about how to limit the virus' spread inside school buildings — particularly in elementary schools, where students spend the majority of their day with one teacher and one group of students. Cleaning routines are still a major focus, but now schools are equally invested in ventilation systems, quarantine procedures and virus testing; schools will offer biweekly COVID-19 tests for all building staff members.

In Robbinsdale, there are now quarantine rooms, equipped with air purifiers, where students feeling ill can wait to be picked up by parents, rather than sitting together in a nurse's office. Buildings in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district have also been retrofitted for better fresh air flow, particularly in high-traffic areas or spots where students would be quarantined, said Carol Hauschild, the district's project management and purchasing coordinator.

"We understand that picking up the virus from materials or objects can happen, but we know it happens a lot through respiratory droplets," she said. "Our focus has really shifted to providing good ventilation."

But anxiety remains high among many school staff members who worry school leaders are making an abrupt about-face before vaccines are widely available and without sufficient safety plans. Though schools have not been the site of widespread COVID-19 outbreaks in Minnesota or elsewhere, rampant community spread of the virus in the fall affected many teachers and school staff. A number of districts were forced into distance learning because so many staff members were ill or quarantined because of symptoms or contact with people who tested positive for the virus.

Teachers union members in the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts, which have been in distance learning all fall but have announced plans to reopen elementary schools in February, have pushed back on their districts' orders for teachers to return to schools. Minneapolis school nurse Angie McCracken said in a news conference last week that she's worried about a lack of plans for staffing school health offices or administering vaccines to educators.

"Even if every educator is vaccinated the first week in February, the earliest they will have immunity is in March," she said. "If one educator's life is lost before spring break, it is one life that could have been spared."

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, said some teachers feel confident in their districts' plans, particularly in areas where in-person learning has been happening all year. But elsewhere, she said some of her members do not trust school administrators to deliver on their safety plans, communicate effectively or be able to pivot back to hybrid or distance learning if conditions deteriorate.

"The overall feeling is everybody does want to get back to the classrooms with their students, when it's safe to do so," she said. "But right now there's really no consensus around the state around safety, and what does that look like."

Virus safety concerns have led to protracted standoffs between schools and teachers' unions elsewhere, including in the Chicago Public Schools. But this week's wave of Minnesota school reopenings, which includes elementary schools in Anoka-Hennepin, Osseo, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Elk River, White Bear Lake, Wayzata, Farmington, Mankato and a long list of other districts, appears to be on track.

Educators said they are eager to reunite with students and provide some consistency in a turbulent year. Lisa Edwards, director of elementary learning for Farmington Area Schools, said young students will particularly benefit from in-person interaction with peers and teachers.

"We know that school is a safe place for a lot of our students and we're eager to provide that for them," she said.

Staff writer Mara Klecker contributed to this report. Erin Golden • 612-673-4790