For anyone who works with kids, you know the aura of energy that surrounds them.

With that said, Monday, Feb. 8, was truly “A Great Day to be a Patriot!” That week, Pequot Lakes Middle School opened the doors to usher in a full in-person learning experience for students in grades 5-8.

It’s been close to a year since we’ve had a complete student body, and for our staff, it’s been a long time coming!

Pequot Lakes Middle School feels a whole lot more “middle schoolish” than it has in a long time. Kids in hallways, cafeterias being used and close to 500 students filling our classrooms. With all the kids comes the joys of working in this place. Hormones, awkwardness, laughter and smiling faces were still present during distance learning, but it certainly is more powerful when we’re in person!

This might catch some off guard, but even the logistical nightmare of getting all of our students picked up in the infamous “parent pickup line” is a welcomed reprieve from empty desks and quiet locker bays!

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With these recent moves to in-person learning on our grades 5-8 campus, I am in debt to the Pequot Lakes Middle School leadership team, teachers, support staff and school board who has confidence in our ability to expand our learning opportunities to four to five days a week for everyone on campus, all while maintaining integrity to a plan designed to keep our kids and staff safe.

Yes, there will likely be bumps in the road ahead. (We kicked off our return with a Monday morning that wasn’t exempt from some close contact quarantining and other limitations).

But again, all was worth the effort as we strive to provide a quality educational experience for our students and a work environment for our staff that is filled with the ambient enthusiasm, laughter and energy that comes with working in a middle school setting.

We appreciate our families who have endured hardships and personal/professional sacrifice to help us to get to this point. Though social distancing, masks and restricted movement are all factors that continue to influence our decision making, we also have our goals set on a spring that might resemble even more normalcy.

That Monday was truly a great day (not only because Patty and the kitchen team served the fan-favorite Mandarin Chicken) but also because of the genuine excitement we saw throughout campus.

This year’s hardships have us reflecting upon the little things that make being a middle school educator so great. Smiles peeking out from behind masks, voices and laughter filling our down time, and kids and staff sharing an authentic enthusiasm for life, learning and social interaction with one another.

It was clear: The kids need us, and we need the kids!

Go Patriots!

Mike O’Neil is Pequot Lakes Middle School principal.