No hugs, lots of hope: Pandemic brings a first day of school like no other

A woman kneels and takes flowers from a young boy.
Seven-year-old Myer Kuglin gives his former teacher Alyssa Weispfennig a bouquet of flowers during an orientation day at Kennedy Elementary School in Hastings, Minn., on Sept. 1.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Rachel Bachman’s first grade classroom looks a lot different this year. Desks once arranged closely for group work now sit far apart and facing front. There are fewer desks, too, since class sizes must be smaller in the COVID-19 era.

“We’ll do a lot of the community-building activities built into the first weeks so that kids feel comfortable and have their voice heard and are still able to collaborate with each other,” said Bachman. “It’ll just be at a distance.”

Thousands of other teachers and students across Minnesota will find similar changes and new norms when they return to school buildings Tuesday for the first time since the spring, when the state suspended in-person learning as the pandemic took off. It promises to be a first day of school like no other.

Students and staff won’t be high-fiving one another, hugging or eating lunch together in the cafeteria. Colorful masks, dots on the floor to encourage social distancing and smaller class sizes will be common. 

Sanitizing and symptom checks

Minnesota officials laid out a plan in late July that emphasized returning to in-person classroom teaching but left it to districts to decide whether to start the year in buildings, online or some hybrid combination based on their local COVID-19 conditions.

State experts are providing analytical guidance to districts during the school year to help superintendents decide if they need to tweak their plans.

Bachman’s school, Kennedy Elementary in Hastings, kicked off its year last week with a hybrid model that slowly welcomed students back into buildings after more than five months away. 

A woman sits on a desk in a classroom.
Kennedy Elementary School teacher Rachel Bachman in her classroom.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When they come in, the kids are greeted with posters instructing them on how to wash their hands to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Happy Birthday.” They’re told the proper way to wear a mask — over the nose and under the chin.

Along with the typical new school year paperwork, parents must sign new forms prompted by the pandemic. They have to agree to a daily COVID-19 symptoms check before sending their kids off to school.

Parent Kelly Weeks said she was a little nervous but also excited as she brought her son Liam to meet his teachers and see his new classroom. She opted for the hybrid model over full-time distance learning because it felt like a nice balance. 

“Distance learning, when we started that previously, it did not go well,” Weeks said. “I had a brand new baby and (Liam) didn’t thrive with that. So I’m happy that he gets to come back a little bit.”

A hybrid model in Hastings means students in the “A cohort” are in school Monday and Tuesday and those in the “B cohort” are there Thursday and Friday. On Wednesday, crews deep clean and sanitize. 

What going back to school looks like this year
by Elizabeth Shockman

“When we surveyed families and we surveyed our staff, safety kept coming to the top,” said Robert McDowell, the Hastings district superintendent. “We really took all the information that we had from staff and families and tried to build our schedule based on what the community wanted.”

Hastings is offering a full-time distance learning option, per state rules. About 15 percent of district families opted for full-time online school, McDowell added.

A man opens a door with a sign on it.
Hastings schools superintendent Robert Mcdowell opens the door to Hastings High School.
Evan Frost | MPR News

They include the family of Michelle Rodriguez, who stopped by the Hastings Middle School office recently to pick up Chromebooks for her eighth grader and two sixth graders.

“We have asthma and my grandparent is 90 years old,” she said. “We decided to keep them at home to protect them.”

Upstairs, just half of the fifth graders were allowed back in school during the first week. The rest of the school is distance learning at home. This gives the fifth graders a chance to learn the ropes of middle school, which unlike elementary, requires moving between classrooms.

With the new coronavirus protocols in place, students wear masks and carry their backpacks because they can’t use lockers to avoid congregating in the hallways. 

The fifth grade class is divided up into pods, each a cluster of small classrooms where students are contained throughout the day to minimize potential spread of the virus.

But the staff is still working to create a two-way traffic flow between classrooms and students; it doesn’t appear as though they're spaced far enough apart as they line up to leave each session.

McDowell said while there is more movement in the upper grades, the students are still in smaller groups than pre-COVID-19 days. And about half of the student population — around 600 students — will be in the building on a given day.

“The students are still in smaller learning groups and will have more controlled movements throughout the day,” he said. “This allows us to know where each student is located during the day, and which students they have come into close contact with.”

No high-fives or hugs

At Hastings High School, multiple staircases and wide hallways are now dedicated to direct students in one direction. Signs are posted everywhere for students to stay to the right or go up or down. 

A group of upperclassmen welcomed the ninth graders to the building last week to help them transition to a new school, especially during this unusual time. 

“You can’t be as close to people,” said Kyra Smallidge, 16. “You can’t really give high-fives or anything like that, but there is obviously different tactics you can use to get to know everyone and make sure they’re comfortable with the new school.”

Just half of the ninth graders were in the building, which staff said was a lot quieter than a normal first week of school. 

During passing time, students had their masks and backpacks on. Some were walking in pairs, so McDowell said they plan to work on practicing social distancing a bit more. 

“We basically picked everything up last March and just left the buildings,” he said. “So that’s going to change how we once again monitor halls with our staff and how we have those conversations and really train not only the staff but the students in what does this new normal need look like.”

The new normal includes a chunk of time where students will be at home, on their devices for virtual learning. 

A sign hangs on a doorway to an empty classroom.
A sign giving students tips on how to properly wear a mask hangs in the doorway of a classroom at Kennedy Elementary School.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Hastings Middle School language arts and social studies teacher Scott Foster plans to experiment with distance learning this year to find what works best. He’s thinking about taping some of his in-person sessions to post on the online platform.

But last week, he welcomed students to his virtual classroom via Zoom, where they ended up having more fun than they anticipated. 

Bleary-eyed students joined the morning session from home. As one got up to grab an apple in the middle of it, another had a more complicated issue he needed to attend to. 

“My sister is messing with the birds,” the fifth grader said. 

“Your sister is messing with the birds?” a surprised Foster asked. 

Foster then asked the student to bring the bird over to the screen and show the rest of the class. 

The disruption drew laughs and giggles from the entire room, opening an opportunity for show and tell where everyone brought something to share.