After nearly two years of COVID-19 driven chaos, Tuesday, Sept. 7, marked a mostly normal return to school for students and staff in the Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes school districts, as well as at Nisswa Elementary School.

Pine River-Backus School District

While a federal mask mandate remains for school buses, that was one of the few outwardly visible remaining COVID-19 mitigation practices when Pine River-Backus students stepped off their yellow buses on Tuesday morning.

Not only were students not required to continue wearing their masks, the high school athletes were lined up to give the elementary students some good old-fashioned high fives on their way to class, making it a very different or very normal start to the school year, depending how far back you look.

Some students coming off of buses at the Sept. 7 first day of school could be seen removing their federally mandated masks immediately upon stepping off the bus.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal
Some students coming off of buses at the Sept. 7 first day of school could be seen removing their federally mandated masks immediately upon stepping off the bus. Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

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"(It was a) great start to the day," said PR-B Elementary School Principal Rick Aulie. "Our high school student athletes greeted our elementary students as they got off the school bus this morning. They were wearing their jerseys. It was so fun to listen to the cheers and see their smiling faces. We're thrilled to be back to learning together."

The sentiment was similar in grades 7-12.

"It's been very positive and has seemed to be kind of like the old normal that we knew," said PR-B High School Principal Chris Halverson. "It's great to see the smiles on kids' faces and the communications between teachers. It's felt more so-called normal I guess."

After a year where uncertainty led to lower class numbers, elementary enrollment numbers are making a comeback.

"We're at 47 new students," Aulie said. "Our total is 462. That doesn't include preschool, and we are up 35 or more kids in K-6 from where we were last year. Our preschool enrollment is also up."

Enrollment in the elementary is down 13 students from May of 2019, before the pandemic turned everything upside down; however, numbers fluctuate on an annual or even monthly basis even during normal years.

In the high school, enrollment overall is up 20 students over last year at 417; however, Halverson said the number might fare better compared to the pre-COVID-19 years as the high school enrollment has traditionally been very close to 400 students for the time he's been at the district. That means the high school is likely back to its pre-COVID-19 numbers or better.

Pequot Lakes School District

Pequot Lakes High School welcomed 650 students into its halls Tuesday, which is an increase of 70 from the previous year.

“The first day was a whirlwind,” high school Principal Aaron Nelson said. “The hallways feel really full this year and class sizes are quite large. Most students are excited to return and see each other's faces. Many of our high school students are seeing each other for the first time without a mask in a year.”

Elsie Neale runs well ahead of her sister Dagne at Eagle View Elementary School's first day of class on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Dan Determan / Echo Journal
Elsie Neale runs well ahead of her sister Dagne at Eagle View Elementary School's first day of class on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Dan Determan / Echo Journal

The first day went off without issue for middle school students, which middle school Principal Mike O’Neil credited to older students helping the younger ones prepare before the year even began.

“PLMS had a phenomenal fifth-grade orientation and open house, with incredible participation by both our students and their families,” O’Neil said. “All of the back to school planning and preparation truly paid off as many of our students were confident they knew where to go on Day 1, and were successful throughout the entire day.”

The middle school saw an enrollment figure of 554 students on the first day of school, while Eagle View Elementary School saw 585 students report for class.. In total, there were 1,777 K-12 students at Pequot Lakes.

Though school officials do expect a few growing pains in the early days of the school year, they are confident everything will be sorted very soon.

“With nearly 50 students who are new to PLHS, there have been a lot of questions about navigating the school, but after one day they will be settled in," Nelson said. "All said, this is a great day to be a Patriot.”

Nisswa Elementary School

Unlike Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus students and staff, those entering Nisswa Elementary School on Tuesday morning had to keep their facemasks on after the Brainerd School Board approved the mandate.

But no one seemed to mind. While a few nervous students shed tears, by far the majority of students appeared happy to see their friends, teachers and classrooms. Staff also smiled under their masks as they welcomed students to their classrooms.

Nisswa Elementary School students William and Grace Winegar hold hands as William walks his little sister to her kindergarten classroom Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. 
Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal
Nisswa Elementary School students William and Grace Winegar hold hands as William walks his little sister to her kindergarten classroom Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

Nisswa School Principal Molly Raske - sporting her "Happy First Day of School" T-shirt - predicted an awesome school year.

"There is nothing like the first day of school!" she said via email. "Today I found that Nisswa students, families and staff were beyond excited to be together again! We were all here early, eagerly awaiting the arrival of our Nisswa Warriors. My favorite part of the day was simply walking the halls to find students giggling, teachers supporting students in learning the daily routines, classes taking pictures, kindergartners drinking "jitter juice" to get rid of any nerves, students in the gym and library for their first book checkout of the year and so much more!

"We work to get to this day and when it finally arrived, it was even better than we dreamed of. There is truly no place like Nisswa!" Raske said.