They've logged on to learn from bedrooms and kitchen tables. Felt the euphoria of returning to band or football practice and the whiplash of activities canceled as soon as they began. They've struggled to focus on math problems and reading homework as family members fell ill with COVID-19 or lost jobs.
Minnesota students are nearing the halfway mark of the disorienting pandemic school year, and the leaders of their school districts are now wrestling with how to get many of them back in the classroom — as early as mid-January under new guidance from the state. The push to restore school to something resembling normal has only intensified as districts report surges in failing grades and struggles with absenteeism. Educators are worried about students' mental health and how much this year's disruptions will stretch already wide achievement gaps.
Students from around the state have settled in to the once-unfamiliar routines of classes via Zoom, and masks and mandatory cleaning breaks at school. But they are anxious for a return to familiar school routines, missing hugs from friends, long-awaited milestones and the comforting predictability of school days that all happen in the same place.
Gianny Lopez, 7th grade, Sibley East Middle School, Arlington
Depending on the week, school has looked very different for Gianny Lopez this year: in class, hybrid learning, home for full-time distance learning. At one point, there had been so much back-and-forth that he nearly forgot where he was supposed to show up — or log in — for class, and was late.
"One day I almost forgot that I had to go to school," he said.
At the moment, his school southwest of the Twin Cities is in distance learning. He's eager to get back, though he laments that in-person school in the pandemic isn't exactly like school used to be. Class periods are longer, with a 10-minute cleaning break after every period. Gym class means spreading out from your classmates and doing exercises by yourself; Gianny particularly misses playing dodge ball.
But learning at home is tough, too. He's spent plenty of time trying to sort out technology glitches just to turn in his homework. If he wants to look through a microscope for science class, he has to make an appointment to go to the school during a specific time slot. Miss it, and you miss the activity. Sometimes he feels stressed, and sometimes he takes it in stride, he said.
"Online school is way harder than in person," he said, "because you don't know if [the assignment] made it there, or if you clicked the wrong thing."
Phoua Lee, 12th grade, Park Center Senior High School, Brooklyn Park
Before the pandemic, Phoua Lee was a B-honor roll student who thrived in the classroom.
But this fall, at home in full-time distance learning, she's struggled to keep up. Her dad got a serious case of COVID-19 and ended up in the hospital for a month. With her family in crisis, Phoua stopped attending classes and fell further behind. Her worries shifted from whether prom and graduation would be disrupted to whether she'd even be part of the class of 2021.
"Honestly, at this point, I think I'm not really focusing on how graduation is going to look — I'm focusing on if I'm going to be able to graduate," she said.
She dropped a physics class that was particularly challenging to learn online, and she's trying to stay motivated in other subjects. She misses singing alongside her classmates in choir; online, the teacher has had to pivot to music history lessons, and Phoua sings alone.
As she pushes toward graduation, she is balancing schoolwork with a part-time job, and hoping adults will understand that the abrupt shifts in many students' academic performance this year aren't for lack of effort.
"I want everyone to understand we are trying," she said. "We're not only doing bad in school because we're lazy. We are really trying our best."
Paris FierkeLepp, 11th grade, South Ridge School, Culver
At one of the few Minnesota high schools where students were still attending in-person classes full time into December, it was an anxious fall for Paris FierkeLepp.
She was glad to have some slice of normalcy, seeing her friends and teachers for a few hours a day at her rural school northwest of Duluth. But as she made her way through the halls, she wrestled with worry. Mundane activities like sitting in class or greeting friends now meant scanning for potential threats. Who was properly wearing their mask? Who had attended a party and now should be avoided?
"In my family, every day there's a discussion," she said in early December, before her school made a temporary shift to distance learning. "Every day. Do we keep going to school? I couldn't imagine, I honestly couldn't imagine getting sick and bringing it home."
Paris grieved the loss of the activities she thought would define her junior year: basketball and track, volunteering, hanging out with friends after school. For the first time in her active young life, she felt adrift.
"In a normal year I would have school, I would have games, I would have extracurriculars on the weekends, I would have all this stuff that gets you up in the morning," she said. "And now I come home, I have my homework done, and I just sit here."
Elijah Gagnon, 12th grade, South Ridge School, Culver
Last spring was supposed to be a big one for Elijah Gagnon. He was set to go to a national speech competition in New Mexico for a week. Then the pandemic shut down his school, erased his travel plans, and left him starting a new school year with a big, speech-competition-sized hole in it. Speech was the thing that kept him excited about school and motivated to get good grades.
"Not being able to do that … is a really big challenge," he said. "Because now it's like: Well, do I really have to get good grades?"
Still, he knows he has it better than many kids who spent the fall longing to be in the classroom. He was there, five days a week — other than the two weeks he spent at home after catching COVID-19.
"I am a really extroverted person," he said. "I live off of my friends and just to be even out of school for two weeks was painful."
Elijah's school is now in distance learning, with plans to return to in-person instruction in mid-January. He's sticking with his post-graduation plans of joining the Marine Corps, but he's worried that as graduation nears, school could abruptly shut down again.
"I'm worried for when I am coming down to the end stretch, that I'm not going to be able to give my friends a hug goodbye," he said.
S'sence Adams, 4th grade, Friendship Academy of the Arts, Minneapolis
By December, the pandemic school rules were easy for S'sence Adams to recite.
"We have to keep our masks on and we have to social distance a lot, so when I want to be with my friends or hug friends, I can't hug them how I used to," she said. "When you get sick you can't come to school."
But the losses of such a strange school year were still tough for her to understand, and to bear. She was still coming to her charter school in person, but her best friend was taking classes at home. She said she wasn't entirely sure why, but she figured it was because many of her other classmates had also disappeared, opting to log on to school from home.
She said she'd mostly perfected keeping her mask on at school and once in a while, she'd accidentally leave it on after coming home off the school bus.
It's been tough, though, to get used to how the virus has disrupted her life, and her family's. When her cousin caught the virus, she spent time worrying the cousin might die. Though her cousin recovered, her great-uncle died after contracting COVID-19. But she hopes that things will soon look brighter.
When she thinks about that future, she said, "I feel happy because hopefully we don't have to wear our masks, and we can see more friends."