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Students in Waconia schools returned to class for the school year with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic looming over the year. (Submitted photo)

The first day of school is a big day every year as parents snap photos of their kids departing for school, and as students board buses and enter school buildings for the first time to start the school year.

It was an even bigger day this year as Waconia Public School students returned to school last week following a spring of distance learning, a summer of uncertainty, and new school protocols to start the fall term in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Locally, it even attracted the attention of a WCCO-TV news crew as media all around the state reported on the beginning of an unprecedented school year.

Based on state guidelines and current Carver County COVID-19 case numbers, School District 110 started the 2020-2021 school year under a hybrid model with a blend of in-person classes and online learning,

Students in grades K - 6 began with every day instruction in small groups called learning pods, while grades 7 -12 are alternating between classroom and distance learning two days each week.

For most parents, students and school staff, the return to in-person learning brought at least some sense of normal, although classrooms were rearranged to ensure social distancing, school lunches were different, and all K-12 students, staff and visitors were required to wear a mask or face covering.

“The first week of school at ISD 110 has gone even better than expected,” said School Superintendent Pat Devine. “We know that there has been a lot of anxiety, concerns and questions about the start of school this year during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we opened the doors, many of the concerns went away.”

“We have had a fantastic first week at Laketown,” said Keith Baune, who was starting his own first week as new principal at the elementary school. “The return of students has brought life and energy back to the building that we have all missed for the past six months. Despite students and staff returning to a reinvented learning environment, many new routines and procedures, the excitement is evident.”

“Students can see our smiles and we can see theirs beneath the masks,” Baune told WCCO-TV during an interview.

“Although it is an exceptional year to take on the lead principal role of a school for the first time, I like to view it as an opportunity,” he said. “We cannot control the fact that we are in a pandemic, but we are in control of how we engage with one another to create a positive school experience for all learners. It is truly an honor and a privilege to partner with the Laketown staff, students, and families to create the best learning environment possible during this unprecedented school year.”

Teachers at the middle school and high school report that one learning challenge for them is how to connect with distance learners and on-site learners at the same time.

“It was odd teaching to a room of 14 or so students while having to make a conscious effort every few minutes to turn to the camera on a computer and acknowledge the students learning while lounging on their couches” said Carl Person, WHS social studies teacher. “A hacker infiltrated our class on Zoom on the first day so that was interesting. I think we’ve learned how to prevent that moving forward. There will be a learning curve for another week or so, then I expect everyone will settle in and find a comfort level.”

All across the district, educators report they are learning new ways of doing things, also that flexibility will be an important attribute for everyone involved this school year.

Meanwhile, students “appear to be truly happy to return to school,” teachers and staff report. Being apart from each other for over six months has been tough, they say, and clearly, socialization with one another is a welcome change from learning at home.

That said, they note, while everyone genuinely appreciates being together, social distancing is a challenge and “we need to get better at keeping six feet from one another.”

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