On the cusp of the strangest school year in recent memory, Minnesotans are feeling a rush of back-to-school jitters unlike anything they’ve ever experienced.

There’s the normal stress: tough classes, new teachers, hectic schedules. And then there’s the way the pandemic has seeped into every aspect of school life.

Red Rock Central School Superintendent Todd Lee is preparing to hand out hundreds of cloth face masks printed with the southwest Minnesota district’s logo (the Falcons) and debating whether to buy a very large tent for choir practice.

“Who would have thought that would have been a thing that we needed?” he said.

Across the state, many schools will start this week, in one way or another. Following the guidance of Gov. Tim Walz and state and local health officials — and depending on the local spread of the virus — some districts have opted to keep all students home, while others are starting with a combination of in-person and distance learning. Some schools, mostly outside of the Twin Cities metro area, are fully reopening, with modifications like mask-wearing and more rigorous cleaning.

After a summer of uncertainty, many teachers, students, parents and school administrators are eager to reconnect with one another and with the rhythms of the school year. But their feelings about how the year will work run the gamut from exhilaration to exasperation.

In St. Cloud, Dave Masters is contemplating how he’ll teach shop classes to students who will spend half of their week at home in front of computer screens. Robbinsdale education assistant Annette Davis is worried that reporting for work will put her and her family at risk of catching COVID-19. Minneapolis high school sophomore Kennedy Rance, starting the year in a new school, wonders how she’ll make friends, since all of her classes are online.

“I would say that I wouldn’t wish this situation on my enemy, but we’re all living it,” said Amy Olson, a parent of three children in the Centennial School District, who wonders how her family will balance work, supervising remote learning and the health risks of attending school part time. “Here we are, just trying to paddle through.”

‘A lot of improvising’

Many Minnesota families have spent much of 2020 scrambling to make plans and then endlessly altering those plans when something — the virus spread, school calendar shifts, day-care closures — changed. Because all school districts are required to provide a full-time distance learning option, even if they choose to reopen, some parents have agonized over whether to send their children back to school.

Olson picked the hybrid option for her children, hoping that even a couple of days of in-person learning will help them feel connected to their teachers and peers. But she’s resigned to the idea that they may end up at home, anyway. Already, a few Minnesota schools, in communities including Rochester, Minneota and Montevideo, have abruptly delayed the first day of school because students or teachers tested positive for COVID-19.

Teachers know they’ll have to be ready to shift their lesson plans and classrooms. At South St. Paul Secondary, history teacher Mark Westpfahl is starting a new school year in a new school. He has his third-floor classroom ready to go, and it is an eclectic space, blending elements of a rummage sale, campaign office and courthouse library.

But he wonders if some might object to cloth-covered chairs during a pandemic or if kids will be able to touch the World War II artifacts stored in a trunk against the back wall. His heart races, he said, pondering what’s possible to pull off with hybrid learning and which lessons might have to be put aside.

“I know I need to adapt, and it’s hard,” he said, “because that’s exactly what we expect our students to do.”

Masters, the tech ed teacher in St. Cloud, said he’s glad his district is among several that pushed back their start dates to mid-September to allow more time to plan. He’s had to reinvent shop class, thinking about how an assignment like building a shed can translate to distance learning.

“It’s a lot of improvising,” he said. “It isn’t ideal for the hands-on stuff that we do in class, but I’m learning more.”

Many nonsalaried school staff members remain worried about how they fit into schools’ plans. Davis, the education assistant in the Robbinsdale district, was still waiting last week for directions about how to do her job. The district plans to start the year with distance learning, but she’d been told she may have to work in the school building.

Davis said she’s battling dual anxiety about bringing illness to the home she shares with her daughter and young grandchildren, and about how she’ll help her students, who have autism.

“I’ve got to be able to pull myself together and be here for other people,” she said.

Class by computer

Students are balancing their own mix of excitement and disappointment.

Nalani Vang, a sophomore at the Math and Science Academy, a charter school in Woodbury, is already a week into her school year. She’s feeling cooped up, stuck at home trying to keep up with online classes and activities like 4-H and Girl Scouts through Zoom meetings. She usually plays volleyball and softball, but that’s out this year.

Vang said she’s “really nervous” about falling behind in her academics, including Advanced Placement biology.

“It’s really hard,” she said. “I wish I had a teacher in person.”

Rance, who will attend Patrick Henry High School, is grateful she has a little social interaction through the school’s tennis team; she’s allowed to practice with one other team member. She’s mourned the loss of future school dances and club meetings and that she can’t join the step team, as she’d hoped. Still, she’s trying to stay positive.

“I really wanted to have that high school experience,” she said, “but it could be a lot worse.”

Emil Liden, a senior at Minnetonka High School, spent some of his last week of summer organizing the corner of his bedroom where he’s set up a desk and a bookshelf for distance learning. It’s also the spot where he’ll meet virtually with his classmates for many of his school activities, like working on the school newspaper and leading a Catholic student club.

“I’ve been thinking about what the first day of school will look like, and it’s not the same excitement as getting up, getting ready and going to see your friends that you haven’t seen in a while,” he said. “This year, it’s getting up and looking at the computer screen, again.”


Staff writers Mara Klecker and Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.