Updated: 2 p.m.
Hundreds of thousands of Minnesota students headed back to school on Tuesday amid a sweltering end to summer for much of the state.
While some Minnesota districts start the school year in late August, many others still follow the traditional day-after-Labor Day schedule. But the wait didn’t equal any cooler conditions as students started classes, with temperatures forecast to reach the 90s across much of southern and eastern Minnesota.
In St. Paul, Superintendent Joe Gothard welcomed students to the first day at the new East African Elementary Magnet School. It’s a new program that kicked off Tuesday in the former Jackson Elementary in the city’s Frogtown neighborhood.
Gothard acknowledged the weather would be difficult for the first day, but he said staff would work to keep kids comfortable.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
Gothard said 43 percent of the district’s buildings have air conditioning — but that means more than half do not.
“We have several mechanical options of trying to allow outside air in [but] the challenge is, the outside air isn’t any better than the inside air right now,” he said. “We know that today will be a challenge. We’ll try to get our students out [in the] shade and breeze if they can, try to stay in parts of the building that are a little bit cooler.”
Gothard said the district felt it was important to stick to its commitment to start school Tuesday for students and staff.
“There’s nothing like a first day of school. I mean, you can see the children and their family members are ready and this is what they’ve been counting on all summer long,” he said. “There’s great anticipation and excitement. We have 1,100 new staff who we’re welcoming to their first day of school in St. Paul Public Schools. So it’s far more than symbolic for us. It’s really important that we get started with a great 2023-24 academic school year.”
In Minneapolis Public Schools, students in grades 1 through 12 started Tuesday; kindergarten and pre-K students start Thursday.
District officials urged teachers to turn off classroom lights, keep shades and blinds closed and limit use of computers and other heat-generating equipment, in efforts to keep school buildings cool. The district said classes could rotate to cooler areas of buildings — lower-level classrooms or rooms on the shaded side of buildings — during the day.
Much cooler weather is in the forecast for Minnesota for Wednesday, and through the rest of the week.
Getting students connected
In Oakdale, Minn., 12th-grade students and teachers in orange shirts filled the gymnasium at Tartan High School Tuesday morning. When the doors pushed opened and the first ninth graders stepped inside, the whole room erupted in cheers.
For older students, many of whom spent their freshman year in distance learning due to the pandemic, welcoming younger students back in person was a way to give ninth graders an in-person welcome they didn’t experience.
“I’m really jittery and excited,” said senior Aliassiana Jackson. “I love school, I love coming in, seeing my friends. And then, having to go through that whole COVID-19 experience, and like being online. It’s so nice to just be in person with everyone.”
For school leaders, the pep rally and cheer corridor is a way to get students connected and engaged — something many districts have struggled with since the start of the pandemic, and something that some have found correlates to academic achievement.
“One thing we’ve found is that students that are engaged in a club, sport or activity are much more likely to go to school because they’re excited about that after school kind of social aspect,” said North St. Paul, Minn., assistant superintendent, Ty Thompson.
Beyond the welcoming pep rally and staggered start to the school year, the district is also planning activity fairs and investing time and thought into things like football games and extracurricular clubs to get students connected to their schools.
Changes from the recent legislative session will be visible in schools from the first hours of the academic year.
Breakfast and lunch at all participating Minnesota schools will be free of charge for students after Gov. Tim Walz signed the Universal School Meals bill into law in March.
At Tartan High School, Thompson said the difference will be tangible.
“Something that you might see in the past when it’s the first day of school, is kids might not be sure if they have any lunch money on their card. So, even though we as a school would still give them lunch, if they’re brand new, they might not feel comfortable and so they just won’t go through the line and they’ll just say, ‘Oh, I’m not hungry.’ And so we’re really excited about the fact that that is not a factor at all anymore,” Thompson said.
Schools are also now required to be stocked with Naloxone — an anti-overdose drug. And they’re working on getting menstrual products in restrooms at no cost to students.
The legislative changes around academic instruction might not be as visible today. Lawmakers are requiring that schools offer ethnic studies courses, but that requirement doesn’t go into effect until the 2027-2028 school year.
There are also new personal finance and civics instruction requirements and the Read Act, which is meant to change the way literacy and reading are taught in classrooms throughout the state.
Districts have been doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work on the Read Act over the summer: training teachers, assessing curriculum, learning about the new requirements. These are really big changes that will affect some schools and classrooms more than others, but will take time in many places to implement.