Wearing masks and keeping their distance from their classmates — or at home, sitting alone in the glow of a computer screen — Minnesota students on Tuesday reported for the first day of an extraordinary school year.
"While today is the traditional first day of school in Minnesota, we all know there is nothing traditional about this school year," said state Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker. "What is typically a universal experience for students and families across our state has turned into a truly unique experience that looks different for every district and charter school."
Depending on the spread of COVID-19 in their communities, staffing levels and other considerations, schools around Minnesota took a different tack for starting the year. Of the 426 districts and charter schools that reported their plans to state education officials, the largest share — about 63% — started the year in a hybrid model, with students spending part of the week learning from home and the remainder at schools recalibrated for social distancing. About a quarter of districts and charter schools, mostly outside the Twin Cities metro area, fully reopened. Another 12% began the year with distance learning.
Millions of students and teachers across the nation, from Houston to Chicago to Baltimore, returned to class Tuesday. They dealt with the familiar (first-day butterflies and parents' tears as they sent off their kindergartners) and the strange new normal (technology glitches and classes as Zoom meetings) of education during a pandemic.
They followed schools elsewhere in the country that opened earlier with mixed success; schools in many states have had to shut down, including some where photos of unmasked students in crowded hallways went viral online.
School leaders in Minnesota reported widespread compliance with the state's mask mandate, one of several measures state health officials hope will head off those kinds of widespread outbreaks.
In the Elk River school district, in the northwest metro, elementary students were back full time, while middle and high school students began their studies in hybrid mode. About 14% of the district's students opted to stay at home and use the district's distance learning option.
Despite having to juggle so many different forms of instruction, Superintendent Daniel Bittman said Tuesday afternoon that the district hadn't run into any unexpected problems. Bittman said he visited schools and was glad to see students and teachers eager to be back. "Every child had a mask, every child was happy," Bittman said.
Duluth Superintendent John Magas started his day checking on some early child-care programs before delivering a load of Wi-Fi hot spots to an elementary school. All students in the district began the year virtually to help families troubleshoot the at-home technology, though elementary students will attend classes in person two days each week later this month.
Magas said the district has a few kinks to work out — some families reported problems with devices or online accounts, while others needed clearer instructions when starting the school day.
"We have worked really hard to prepare for [the day]," he said. "But it's not going to be perfect."
Minneapolis and St. Paul, along with a handful of suburban districts, started the year with all students at home. Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff made a virtual appearance at several classes and teachers' meetings, including an advisory class for 11th-graders at Edison High.
Graff watched as students got a welcome and some tech support from teacher Jacquelyn Belisle. She explained how they could contact the virtual school counselor's office to change their class schedules and how to manage e-mails from teachers and classmates.
Students responded to Belisle's questions by typing messages into a chat window. When asked how the students were feeling on the first day of such a strange school year, several said they were feeling good, though a few were less enthusiastic. "I'm feeling tired and hoping I can get some clarity about how this school year will go," one responded.
Some Minnesota students remain on summer break; several districts pushed start dates to mid-September, seeking more time to plan. Others are spending this week catching up with students and families and beginning instruction next week.
Schools are also bracing for the possibility of having to change those plans because of increased spread of the virus or outbreaks among students and school staff. Already, a handful of Minnesota schools have made last-minute changes after students and teachers tested positive for the virus and had to quarantine.
On Tuesday, officials with the state Department of Health said they'd tallied 236 cases of COVID-19 that involved schools since Aug. 1 — a period in which teachers returned to schools to prepare for the year and a few districts got an early start with classes. More than 80% of those cases involved school staff members and most did not spread beyond one person.
Staff writer Katie Galioto contributed to this story.