First day back: Students excited about new year, in spite of changes

The attitude at local schools seemed positive for the first day of the 2020-2021 school year.

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A Pine River-Backus Elementary student rubs hand sanitizer in on his way off the bus on the first day of school. A young lady prepares to do the same behind him. Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

It's been nearly 200 days since area students last attended a physical class at their school because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tuesday, Sept. 8, marked the first day of a new school year for many students in the lakes area, particularly elementary age students who are attending class in-person, five days a week, in area districts.

Older students will either continue distance learning full time, or will return to school a couple of days a week and distance learn the other days after finishing the 2019-2020 school year with distance learning.

School administrators seem to believe that returning students are adapting well to changes that allowed local districts to reopen their doors, and those students were eager to return.

Pequot Lakes Schools

The majority of Eagle View students were dropped off by their parents on the first day of school. Principal Melissa Hesch said the drop-off process went about as well as she could hope. Dan Determan / Echo Journal


School days have seen changes to student attendance and a slew of new rules and regulations. Despite all of that, the first day of school seemed to have gone off without a hitch in the Pequot Lakes School District.

“It's phenomenal to see kids (and their families) back in the school building,” middle school Principal Mike O’Neil said in an email. “There's something to be said about the energy that we capture from the smiles behind the masks and the sounds of children filling our hallways again.”

Pequot Lakes Middle School has its fifth- and sixth-graders reporting in-person every day, while seventh- and eighth-graders will report on a staggered schedule twice a week to better maintain proper distancing protocols.

“We've had to rewrite routines and procedures, and we certainly appreciate our students, staff and families being patient with us and we develop a new approach to learning,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil thanked his school’s staff - from teachers and paraprofessionals to custodians and drivers - for “providing a positive day-one experience” for the students.

At Eagle View Elementary School - where all students reported in-person and the majority of students were dropped off by parents and guardians - the day went almost as well as anyone could have hoped, according to the administration.

“It has been an amazing start to the 2020-2021 school year,” Eagle View Principal Melissa Hesch said in an email. “Speaking for all of the staff, having students back in the building feels normal.”

With the exception of a rogue puppy that managed to get out of its vehicle and into the school building, Hesch said the drop-off process was smoother than anticipated at Eagle View, calling it a “very typical” start to the day. She expressed gratitude for the families for following procedure during the drop-off, but wished to remind parents to make three lines of vehicles in the school's loop for both drop-off and pickup.


“The energy of the students and the smiles (under the masks) is truly the heart of EV,” Hesch said. “Students have adjusted well to the changes with masks, technology and other procedures.”

Pine River-Backus Schools

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Face shields and cloth masks were both present among students getting off the bus for the first day of the school year at Pine River-Backus. Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

Decked in masks and face shields and being directed to different doorways for social distancing purposes did not appear to dampen the spirits of Pine River-Backus students arriving to school for the first day of school Tuesday, Sept. 8.

"They were excited," said Casandra Oaks, mother of three girls returning to school. "Very excited."

Oaks was one of the first parents to arrive at the school, and like many parents who dropped off their children, she was asked to wait in her car as the girls were directed to doorways based on their grade level, in this case two of them are in grade six and one in second grade. The district provided plenty of guidance to allow Oaks to set her mind at ease.

"The video they put out on the website was really helpful," Oaks said. "The girls could see what was going to be going on in the school with face masks and seeing Mr. (Rick) Aulie wearing his face mask and taking it on and off. We felt good about it."

Aulie, elementary school principal, was as impressed by the incoming children and parents.


"I am very proud of our students, families and staff today," Aulie said. "Things went better than expected and we are so happy to have kids back at school. It has been 184 days since there has been this much energy around our building, so we are thankful for that. Classrooms are busy with teaching and learning. We will continue to monitor our new procedures, routines, and adjust when needed. The safety of our staff and students is our number one priority. I think we have done the best we can with this. "

The elementary school looks quite different, with smaller class sizes and spread out seating. The high school looks even more different, with most students there attending regularly scheduled classes by video. High School Principal Chris Halverson was equally excited to get back to the swing of things, big changes or not.

"I am very proud of our team of learners, which includes teachers, students and families of our PR-B community," Halverson said. "It was great to see and hear students in the building. The energy is different because of the number of students, but the smiles, interaction and collaboration is why educators are here. Teachers are in action and our Tech Team has used a proactive approach and are the best in the business."

Nisswa Elementary School

Payton, Paxon and Olivia were among just six students to exit a bus and head toward Nisswa Elementary School on the first day of school Tuesday, Sept. 8. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

It’s no surprise to those who know her that Nisswa Elementary School Principal Molly Raske was beyond excited for the first day of school.

“The first day of school has been awesome!” she said in a midday email Tuesday. “Every year you have those feelings of anticipation and excitement, but I think this year we were more grateful than ever to just be back together. We have a new school, our kids back in the halls and the year has started. Best day ever!”

Raske noted that the school’s two-year construction project is complete, saying, “the building is beautiful. Every area is bright, spacious, state of the art and ready for students. Our staff has been preparing all summer and are ready for students to be back. Sept. 8 could not come quick enough.”


During an open house for families held Wednesday, Sept. 2, at the school - where a two-year remodel and expansion project just wrapped up - teachers were excited both about their new classrooms and to welcome students back to the physical classroom after a nearly six-month hiatus.

“I’m super excited,” said kindergarten teacher Jackie Reinke. “I’m glad we can be here. I’m glad the school is ready with the new remodel.”

Acknowledging this school year “will be one for the books,” Reinke said children need social and emotional development that in-classroom teaching offers.

“They need to be with their peers,” she said.

All students had a T-shirt and white mask awaiting them in classrooms at the open house. Teachers and students alike perhaps will have to make an extra effort to understand each other when talking through masks.

Nisswa kindergarten teacher Shaylee Schei said during a recent Kinder Camp, incoming kindergartners had no problem wearing masks.

“The good thing about kindergartners is they like to be heard,” Schei said with a laugh. “So they’ll tell stories over if they’re not heard the first time clearly with masks.”

Parent Julie Cummings, who has a third-grader in Nisswa and a sixth-grader at Pequot Lakes Middle School, is also happy about in-person learning.


“I’m super excited for the kids to go back,” she said at the Nisswa School open house. “They need the social interaction.”

Staffing changes at Nisswa School include longtime kindergarten teacher Joe Koman moving to fourth grade. Jill Bjorge, who has taught for 22 years, will also be a new face teaching fourth grade.

Andrea Parrington comes to Nisswa from Baxter Elementary School to teach kindergarten.

With the new space, the school was able to add another section of early childhood, which Sarah Anderson is teaching.

“We are so excited to welcome these very talented staff members to the Nisswa Elementary family,” Raske said.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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