Sept. 8 may have been the first day of school, but it was nothing like the start of any other school year.

Due to COVID-19, Tuesday included masks, social distancing and for some, learning from home instead of inside a school building.

Chad Duwenhoegger said it was the most unique start in his 31 years in education.

The principal at Alexandria Area High School, Duwenhoegger said only half the students were in the building on the official first day while the other half were learning from home. On Wednesday, those learning at home would have their first official day in school while those who were in school Tuesday would be learning from home on Wednesday.

And he added that about 8% of school’s students in 9-12 grade will be doing full-time distance learning at home.

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Regardless of the situation, Duwenhoegger said it was an excellent start to the 2020-21 school year and that the students and staff have really stepped up to the plate during this unusual time.

“The students were masked up and very respectful,” he said. “It was a great day. And the staff worked really hard to make sure everything went smoothly.”

He also said that whatever parents decide for their children, the school would honor their decisions. If parents and/or students decide that either option – in-person or distance learning – isn’t working, the school will make the transition as smooth as possible.

There is a protocol that would need to be followed, but he said if parents who chose distance learning decide that it wasn’t the right option, the school will welcome back those students. And vice versa, if parents decide they want their student to learn from home, the school would honor that decision.

He said it would be a matter of timing and they would work through it with the family and student.

The same is true for elementary-aged students, but the process may take a bit longer. Woodland Elementary Principal Darla Harstad said that for students in grades K-5, parents would have to fill out a “request to change learning option” form. Because time is needed to prepare materials, make classroom placements, set up necessary transportation and more, it could take up to 15 days before the change is made.

In addition, she said the timeline may also be impacted by how close they are to the end of the quarter, unit of study or similar circumstances.

Currently at Woodland about 25 students, or 6%, have chosen to fully distance learn, said Hardstad.

The other 94% started Tuesday. At the elementary level in School District 206, unlike the high school, students are back to in-person learning full-time.

As for that first day back, Harstad said it went better than expected.

“At times, we don’t give kids enough credit for their resiliency and ability to adapt to changes,” she said. “They did a marvelous job of wearing their masks and going with the flow with the new procedures. It was definitely a joyous day.”

Harstad said that there is a typical nervousness that comes with the first day of school, but it was apparent that after settling into the classrooms, it was excitement instead and that it just kept growing.

“Even though you couldn’t always see the smiles because of their masks,” she said of the students. “You knew they were there.”

Both the students and the teachers were eager to get back to school again, she said, adding that she saw a lot of students working really hard in their classrooms.

“Our teachers have such a passion for this work; they put a lot of planning and organizing to make this day successful and it paid off,” she said.

New normal

Osakis Superintendent Randy Bergquist said the first day back was exciting for students and staff, but that there were probably some nerves thrown in there.

He said custodial staff, office staff and administration worked hard to provide the necessary personal protection equipment for classrooms, hallways, staff and students in preparation of the start of the school year.

“I was surprised at how many students were wearing masks as they entered the building without being told to do so,” said Bergquist, who added that he is excited to have the students and staff back after a very long spring and summer.

He also noted that there will be ups and downs but that the district wants students back in school learning and frankly, just being a kid in today’s society.

“As educators, I am sure there is some concern with COVID, but educators went into educating to be around students and it is great to have them back,” said Bergquist.

Osakis High School principal Brad Hoffarth said being back in the building comes with increased communication because the “new normal” doesn’t look like a normal back-to-school routine.

“The first day of in-person learning allowed staff to see the results of extensive summer planning,” said Hoffarth. “We found that modifications need to be made in a few areas such as our lunch schedule. We are committed to continuing working together to provide students with the best experience possible under these circumstances.”

Hoffarth said both the students and the staff within the Osakis School District have a wide range of levels of excitement, along with questions, because there isn’t a one-size fits all blueprint that applies to being back in school during a pandemic.

Osakis Elementary Principal Shad Schmidt said that overall, the first day back went well. Although he, too, said they found some areas to work on as far as timing with lunches and drop-offs in the morning, as there were some congestion issues.

“I felt the start to the day with students walking by the thermal scanners (which check their temperatures) and getting to their classrooms went smoothly,” said Schmidt.

As for those opting to do full-time distance learning in Osakis, Hoffarth said there is about 5.5% of students in grades 7-12 that chose that option for at least the first nine weeks of the school year. At the elementary level, Schmidt said less than 6% of students are doing distance learning.

He also said that in the Osakis School District, families that chose distance learning had to make a nine-week – or one quarter – commitment. After that, he said they can continue to do distance learning or they can choose in-person learning. If families start with in-person and want to make the change to distance learning, they can do so at any time, but then those students must stay with it until the end of the quarter.

When asked who was most excited to be back in school, teachers or students, Schmidt said he believed the students were, although he knows that the staff is excited as well.

“I think the teachers were anxious to see how everything went before they could get too excited,” he said.

Feeling the excitement

Brian Novak, the K-1 and high school principal for the Brandon-Evansville School District, said Tuesday was a fantastic first day back at school. Other than during scheduled open houses time slots last week, most of the students had not set foot in the school since last March, he said.

“You could really see and feel the excitement of being back in school and being surrounded by friends and the school staff,” said Novak, who is in his first year with the district.

The district has five students in grades K-12 who, as of the first day, will be doing full-time distance learning, said Novak, instead of the traditional five days a week in-person learning. Parents have until Friday, Sept. 18, to decide whether or not their children will keep doing in-person or continue with distance learning.

After that date, Novak said if they are distance learning, they would not be able to switch back until the beginning of the new quarter. However, if students are in-person and want to make the switch to distance learning after that date, they can immediately. Students will be able to switch to distance learning at any time, but will not be able to switch to the traditional in-person mode until the beginning of a new quarter.

Superintendent Don Peschel, who is also a principal, said the first day back to school was great.

He said students and staff eagerly returned and that it was wonderful to see a sense of normalcy.

“There was some anxiety and some kids were scared, but it’s been six months and that is a normal reaction for younger kids,” said Peschel.

Both he and Novak said the district is working out some of the bugs, such as a few bus routes issues, but that overall everything went smoothly.

“Our safety protocols of temperature taking and respecting social distancing to the best of our ability were practiced and this will evolve as students become more trained and comfortable,” said Peschel. “It was an exciting day for students and staff, and all were thankful that we were back.”

As for who was more excited to be back – students or staff – Peschel said it was hard to gauge, while Novak thought it was pretty even.

“Students are the heartbeat of any school district. It was so much fun to get them back into the classrooms and to listen to teachers in their classrooms once again sharing their knowledge and stories with their students,” Novak said.

Parents talk about first day

The Echo Press posted a question on its Facebook page asking parents how the first day of school went. Here are some of the replies:

Carla Meyer: My 4th and 2nd graders had wonderful days! They loved seeing their friends and school. Almost felt normal, they said.

Desiree Ostendorf Burns: I asked my son and he grabbed a chair jokingly and said say school again and I'll chuck this at you. He hated all the restrictions and having to wear a mask all day long. For me, the first thing I noticed this morning was how nice and quiet the house was. Haven't had that since, what, March?

Nadine Walz: Second class period in high school distant learning, the teacher had herself muted from the students at home for half an hour. Then when she unmuted herself, they couldn’t see or hear her from where she was teaching in the classroom. A little ridiculous that they are expected to sit online the whole 90-ish minutes of each class period even if they are working on the work given by the teacher.

Stephanie Fielder Heseltine: My 8th grade daughter said it was a good day overall. She was in school today. We also saw Rick Sansted (Alexandria superintendent) greeting the students this morning at drop off. I loved hearing all the kids playing at Lincoln Elementary School today. I didn't realize how much I've missed the sound of children laughing and seeing them running around the school yard. I imagine they are all excited for their new playground to be finished.

Cami Calhoun: My 1st and 2nd grader LOVED their first day! They were all smiles getting off the bus today and couldn’t wait to tell us about their day. A huge shout out to all of the school staff – teachers, administrators, associates and bus drivers – for coordinating a strong start to the year!

Karla Brouns: Kids enjoyed being back in school, enjoyed seeing their classmates. Not sure the mask and social distancing is going well though, but it's all new and may take time. I am just glad they get some normalcy back into their schedule.

Denise Mills: Elementary in school seemed to go well. Middle school hybrid had a few hiccups. One teacher forgot to send out google invites for the kids at home, so they all missed that hour. Also, StudentVue didn't have my daughters correct schedule online, as far as class start/end times, so she was at lunch when she was supposed to be in math, therefore missed math completely and it was counted as an unexcused absence! Hopefully hiccups will be fixed this week.

Lisa Barker: My two grandkids live with me and one goes to head start and one to preschool and they were excited to take the buses and play outside at school and meet new friends and believe me it was very nice to have a little me time. But I’m so happy I get to have my grandkids live with me; keeps me young.

Lacey Dannhoff: My 2nd grader had a great first day in person and was happy to see friends!