Lexan Thao, 6, started first grade at Hmong International Academy sporting a shark mask, a dinosaur backpack, and a dinosaur shirt. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Minneapolis kids started school on Wednesday morning, arriving with first-day jitters, shark masks, high-fives with mascots, bus confusion, and plenty of excitement at seeing friends and teachers.

For some, this was their first time in a classroom in 18 months. Minneapolis Public Schools began reopening for in-person learning in the middle of last year, but many students stuck with distance learning. This year, that’s not an option. While students can choose to attend school online, they have to give up their spots in their physical schools to do so.

And for many kids, Wednesday was also their first day in a new school. Minneapolis’ Comprehensive District Design plan, intended to desegregate schools and make education more equitable throughout the district, went into effect this fall. As a result, many kids were assigned to schools they’d never before attended.

This was a big day for parents, too. For many, sending their children off to school elicited a mixture of joy, relief, and worry about the ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases. “Bye, honey!” one parent called to her child outside Nellie Stone Johnson Community School, in north Minneapolis. “I love you forever and ever, no matter what!”

Outside the elementary school, staff greeted children with the help of a jaguar mascot, who offered hugs and high-fives. “Happy first day!” a teacher said by way of greeting to a pair of brothers wearing Spiderman and Batman backpacks. “You guys look amazing today! All dressed up for your first day? You guys have breakfast?”

Sahan Journal stopped by six Minneapolis schools on Wednesday and talked with kids about the launch of the school year. Here’s some of what we heard.

Joelina Castillo, 10, Nellie Stone Johnson Community School

This 10-year-old started fifth grade at Nellie Stone Johnson Community School. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

How are you feeling about the first day of school?

Not good.

Is there anything you’re excited about?

No.

Do you want to see your friends?

I only got one person in my class that’s my friend from last year.

Daisi Chuma, 12, Andersen United Middle School

Even though her bus didn’t come, this 12-year-old found her way to Andersen United Middle School. (Her answers are translated from Spanish.) Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

What happened this morning?

The bus didn’t come.

How did you feel when the bus didn’t come?

A little desperate.

How do you feel about the first day of school?

Good.

Do you like school or learning on the computer?

School.

What do you want to do in school today?

Learn. English and Spanish.

Lexan and Trishon Thao, 6 and 8, Hmong International Academy

These brothers, aged 6 and 8, attend Hmong International Academy. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Was this your first day of first grade? How did it go?

Lexan: Good.

What was good?

Lexan: Learning drawing.

What did you draw today?

Lexan: I don’t know.

What was the best thing that happened today at school?

Trishon: There was recess and I played with my friends.

How long had it been since you played with your friends at recess?

Trishon: A really long time.

Do you like learning in school better or on a computer better?

Trishon: In school.

Why do you like that better?

Trishon: Because I can see my friends.

What did you play with your friends at recess today?

Trishon: We talked and then we just played, and played tag.

Mai Chia Lee, 17, Roosevelt High School

This 17-year-old senior at Roosevelt High School liked seeing her teachers face-to-face. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

How did it feel to be back in school today?

Honestly, kind of tiring. I forgot bells existed. It was great, though.

What was great about it?

Seeing the teachers was very nice, and not having to have a screen in between us.

Did you come back for the last quarter of last year, or were you in distance learning the whole time?

I was in distance learning the whole time, because the first semester I did PSEO [postsecondary enrollment options], and then the second semester, I was a part-time student.

So this is your first time being back here in 18 months?

Yeah.

What were some of the biggest changes? Or things that are the same that you had forgotten about?

The stairs. It’s just a confuzzled mess because everyone’s going in all different directions. It’s just a lot of traffic.

What else?

The technology use. Normally, before the pandemic, we didn’t really use technology that much. But now everyone’s transferred on there. And you have to lug it around every day. It’s kind of heavy.

What were you lugging around?

Your Chromebook. The school lends out Chromebooks to the students because of the distance learning. But now because the classes incorporate it into their class, you have to carry it around every day.

What was the best thing about being back today?

I guess just meeting my friends. Because normally in school, the good part of it is meeting your friends. But when we were online, they didn’t have a set time for that. Unless you actually communicate with your friends, you aren’t really able to do that.

So how long had it been since you’d seen some of your friends?

Probably the whole time that we were gone.

Mohamed Mohamed, 17, Roosevelt High School

This 17-year-old senior at Roosevelt High School liked introducing himself to new people. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

How did it feel to be back in school today?

Pretty good. It was a good day, I guess.

What was good about it?

Seeing new faces. Seeing my freshmen friends. All the elementary kids are here, too–kids I went to elementary school with. When I was in fifth grade, they were a few grades below me. But, now, they’re freshmen since I’m a senior.

Were you doing distance learning all of last year, or were you in the school building for some of it?

I was in Africa, so I was doing distance learning. I was in Ethiopia. I just took my laptop and did online school there. It was pretty easy.

How does it feel being back after all that?

Honestly, online school, at first I didn’t like it because it was confusing, and we weren’t doing hands-on assignments. I’m kind of glad that we’re back to school. I prefer in-person.

What do you like about in-person?

See my friends, see my teachers, instead of just staring at a screen and using your mouse to do assignments.

What was the best part about your day today?

Meeting new people and introducing myself.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.