BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Back-to-school pictures aren't typically taken in January.
But that's what Anita Smithson found herself doing Tuesday morning as she snapped a photo of her eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter outside their Bloomington elementary school on their first day back to in-person learning in months.
"You can just barely see their eyes with their winter hats and their masks," Smithson said.
Bloomington Public Schools began allowing pre-k through 2nd grade students back in the building Tuesday. Students in grades three through five will join them beginning February 1.
"They've lost almost a year of being kids," Smithson said. "And at such young ages when they're really learning how to have those social, emotional relationships, and play, and problem solve with each other, that was a huge factor in deciding to have them go back to school."
Bloomington is just one of the Minnesota districts now bringing some elementary students back in the building. Anoka-Hennepin Schools, the largest district in the state, is following the same timeline as Bloomington, bringing kindergarten through grade two back Tuesday, and grades three through five back February 1. Minneapolis Public Schools plans to phase in elementary grades beginning February 8.
Dr. Andy Vollmuth, the principal at Normandale Hills Elementary in Bloomington, says he's confident the district's reopening is as safe as it can be.
"My plan is to abide by the guidance we've been given, but to make this as normal an experience as possible," he said.
Vollmuth says in addition to mask wearing and social distancing, they're working to minimize interactions outside of each class.
"There's just not as much movement within the building," he said.
Meanwhile, the St. Paul Federation of Educators is sending the district a petition with more than 5,000 signatures, pressing the district to delay bringing students back for in-person learning until all teachers and staff can be vaccinated.
"We know that this is a place that small children can carry the virus. Adults, clearly, that are coming into our buildings can carry it as well," said Nick Faber, the union's president. "We have extreme concern about the safety of our members and our communities to which we serve about coming back to school."
St. Paul Public Schools is bringing pre-k through 2nd grade students back on February 1.
In a statement to KARE 11 Tuesday, the district said its reopening plans are in line with state recommendations. It wrote, in part:
"SPPS cannot simply hope that students will improve in the current learning model. We must act; we are using the best information we have to open our schools. The disparities in our children’s education are too large to ignore and too consequential to continue in a manner that serves some and not all. We believe an option to return is important for our community. The Virtual Learning School is available to all families who want to continue learning from home."