A few weeks before the start of school, kindergarten teacher Alyssa Voorhees sat surrounded by 2,000 Popsicle sticks.

Her kindergartners won't be coming to her this fall, so she's sending the alphabet home to them. Capital A on one side of the stick, lowercase a on the other side. Twenty-six letters in the alphabet, 100 sets of Popsicle alphabets, enough for every kindergartner at Olson Elementary in the Bloomington Public Schools.

"I just had to laugh for a minute. I am sitting in way too many Popsicle sticks. But this is fine. It's fine," said Voorhees, one of thousands of Minnesota teachers getting ready for the least-fine school year in memory.

For most school districts, this entire year has been a playground bully offering the choice between getting punched in the eye, the nose or the other eye. None of the options is as great as not getting hit by a global pandemic.

You can have school online, at a distance; just smiling faces on a screen and take-home packets full of printouts and Popsicle sticks.

You can head back to school, if the viral ratio is low enough in your district; everyone in masks, desks spaced as far apart as they'll go in classrooms that smell like disinfectant.

You can split the difference; sometimes online, sometimes rotating in and out of the school building, always knowing that an outbreak could blow your plans to smithereens.

A few weeks before the start of school, Ryan Larson was getting his classroom ready for the eighth- and ninth-graders who are coming back to school full time at Pine City Junior/Senior High School this fall.

"A new school year always means jitters, and now it's a new level," said Larson, who turns math, science and reading lessons into real-world adventures for the at-risk youth he serves.

His students tap maple trees, build boats and once spray-painted a full-sized whale on the lawn outside the school to scale up a design from graph paper.

Larson, a finalist for National Rural Teacher of the Year this year, has always done a lot of his teaching outdoors. In the middle of a pandemic, he's looking for even more opportunities to get his students into the fresh air.

"For the students I work with, school and life is tough," he said. About 15% of his class opted for distance learning this fall, and he's still trying to figure out how to simultaneously teach in-person and at a distance.

For many of his students, though, distance learning in the spring was difficult. "School for a lot of our kids is a really safe, stable place to be, and when that gets upended, a lot of things get upended," he said.

Back in the Bloomington, Voorhees spent her summer working on a new online elementary curriculum and puzzling over fundamental questions like: How do you teach kindergartners how to hold scissors from the other side of a computer screen?

"That's such a hands-on thing," said Voorhees, who's used to being able to physically help little fingers find the right grip.

Teachers know that distance learning highlights all the inequities of the world outside the schoolhouse walls.

Some kids live in homes with high-speed internet. Some live in the blank spaces in Minnesota's rural broadband map. In the spring, early in the shutdown, some students and teachers had to drive to the nearest McDonald's parking lot to find a decent Wi-Fi signal.

Some parents speak the same language as their children's teachers. Some parents are home during the day to supervise and help with online classwork.

Some parents can afford school supplies this year.

Voorhees is doing what teachers have always done: digging into her own pocket to make sure her students have the supplies they need.

"We can't expect kids to have construction paper, we can't expect kids to have scissors. Expect nothing," said Voorhees, who finished her Popsicle stick alphabet and started buying take-home supplies for every kindergartner at Olson Elementary, filling bag after bag with art supplies, paper, pom-poms, Popsicle sticks and Play-Doh.

In districts trying a hybrid model, teachers get the worst of both worlds: students who are too far away one day and uncomfortably close the next.

"I can't teach from the grave," read one of the protest signs teachers held up at a socially distant protest outside Anoka-Hennepin district headquarters, a few weeks before the start of school.

Teachers were still waiting to hear how bringing students in one of the state's largest districts back into the classroom, part time, was going to work.

Would there be enough PPE? What happens when a kid sneezes into their mask? Who's going to disinfect the school buses?

In Osseo, where the first day of school was just pushed back a week, Maria Higueros-Canny, who teaches English-language learners in elementary school, is still waiting for translations of back-to-school information for some of her students' parents.

She's part of a group of teachers of color who are pushing the district to recognize how the pandemic, and district policies, can disproportionately hurt minority students and families.

"This whole year is going to be so difficult. By this time I'm usually excited to go back, because I really love the kids," said Higueros-Canny. "It's going to be a tough year, but we always try to do our best."

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008

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