It was far from a traditional first day of school, but some Minnesota students headed to their classrooms Monday.

Farmington and South Washington County schools were among the districts welcoming groups of students into school buildings for orientation activities before starting a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning.

Many districts across the state will start Sept. 8. Several others that were planning to start their academic years this week or next have pushed back that date to allow more time to plan for remote learning and COVID-19 precautions.

At Farmington High School, Monday's "connection day" offered a chance for high school students to walk through their class schedules and included specific time slots for families and students to talk with teachers.

"It was different, just as the whole school year will be," said Jason Berg, superintendent of Farmington Area Public Schools. "But we could still celebrate and get excited about the first day of school."

Even with their masks on, Berg said he could see kids' faces light up as they walked into their classrooms.

"There was finally that energy and buzz back in the buildings," he said.

School buildings had emptied out last spring as the pandemic forced districts to move to distance learning.

At Grey Cloud Elementary in Cottage Grove, the first of four "transition days" this week kicked off with teachers greeting families outside the building.

"It looked like the airport with teachers holding up signs for their students," Principal Laura Loshek said.

Parents couldn't go inside with their students, but they could chat with the teachers outside. "Everybody just took it in stride," Loshek said.

The day included several welcome activities for students, including a chance to decorate the bags that will house their face mask while they are eating lunch at school. Parents were also able to pick up devices for at-home learning.

The state's "Safe Learning Plan" will guide shifts in a district's learning models based on the progression of COVID-19 in the community.

If the district has to move into distance learning later in the year, the transition days will offer "precious time" to help build in-person relationships between school staff, students and families, Loshek said.

"We're not sure what the future holds," she said. "But I think this is a step in the right direction to start the year."

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440