It's been nine months and nearly 5,000 miles since Dana Ampaw shared a classroom with her students.
First, COVID-19 forced her to evacuate from Russia in April, leaving her English language students behind. And since August, the virus has forced her to connect with her second-graders at Northeast College Prep charter school in Minneapolis online only. No in-person high-fives. No placing achievement certificates on their desks.
But that's all about to change, thanks to the first shots of COVID-19 vaccine that Ampaw and 15,000 other metro-area teachers will receive over the next five days. Within seconds of getting her shot at St. Paul's Roy Wilkins Auditorium on Thursday, Ampaw, a teacher from a family of teachers, was already thinking of ways to praise her students.
"I'm just so happy that we'll be back together," she said.
Excitement and relief seemed to be the words of the day, as a continually replenishing line of educators snaked its way across the skyway spanning Kellogg Boulevard, through the corridor next to Xcel Energy Center and down into the lower level of Wilkins.
Members of the Minnesota National Guard approached to take temperatures and hand out masks for the teachers to wear over the ones already covering their faces. Downstairs, the long single line fanned out into several branches as people standing at least 6 feet apart waited to be called to sit at one of 36 vaccine stations.
"I am excited to be here," Angie Rubin said as she sat down at Table 35 and rolled up her sleeve.
Like Ampaw, the fourth-grade teacher from Zachary Lane Elementary in the Robbinsdale Area district said it has been months — March of 2020 — since she interacted with her students in person.
What do teachers and students miss out on by not working together in a classroom?
"Gosh, they certainly have lost a lot of skills," she said. "But just a lot of safety and community and being with their friends. It's just been a really traumatic year being out of the classroom."
Rubin and her students will reunite in person on Monday.
Mike Yang, a health and physical education teacher at Maplewood and Skyview middle schools in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district, said getting the vaccine is "kind of the first step back to normalcy" for educators and students.
Yang said he has had family members die from COVID. The risks of contracting the virus from students or other adults are never far from his thoughts. The shots that Yang and thousands of other teachers are now receiving will make a real difference in giving everyone peace of mind, he said.
"I think I was a little bit concerned at the beginning and [it seemed like] they were pushing things through. But obviously science kind of backs everything up so I think it's good."