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Rochester elementary students back in classrooms full time

Secondary students are scheduled to return to in-person learning April 5.

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Xylina Vasquez gives her daughter Bethenni Garza a kiss goodbye after dropping her off at the door at Franklin Elementary Monday morning. Children head back to school and back to class Monday, March 1, 2021, at Franklin Elementary and other elementary schools in Rochester. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
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Monday was the first time fifth-grader Sophie Vanderheiden had walked into a classroom at Franklin Elementary in almost a year. Even though elementary schools in Rochester have been in hybrid learning off-and-on since last fall, Vanderheiden stayed at home to wait things out.

“We’ve done 100% distance learning since last March," said Sophie’s mom, Armanda Vanderheiden. "On our days off, they would have been going to their grandparents’ house and we didn’t want to risk the exposure" to COVID-19.

Monday wasn't just a big day for Sophie. It marked the first day since March 2020 that any elementary student attending Rochester Public Schools has been able to return to the classroom full-time. Elementary students started the 2020-21 year in hybrid learning, but there was a bit of back-and-forth from that point on. In November, the increase in COVID-19 illnesses forced the district to switch all grades to distance learning . In January, it started the process of transitioning students back into hybrid learning .

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Franklin school principal Sam Pearson greets kids and directs traffic in front of the school Monday morning. Children head back to school and back to class Monday, March 1, 2021, at Franklin Elementary and other elementary schools in Rochester. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

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Sam Pearson, principal at Franklin Elementary, said even though many of his students have had some time in the classroom through hybrid learning, it hadn’t been the same. For one, students didn’t necessarily get to see their friends since students were split into separate groups and went to school on different days.

“There’s a lot of excitement in the air,” Pearson said. “It’s kind of like a first day all over again because you have these separate classes and they’re merging them together. So, kids are going to be in the same spaces with friends they haven’t seen in person in half a year."

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Franklin Elementary school principal Sam Pearson greets kids and directs traffic in front of the school Monday morning. Children head back to school and back to class Monday, March 1, 2021, at elementary schools in Rochester. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

The debate about if and when students should return to the classroom has been long and heated. Parents organized multiple protests , urging the school district to take action and return students to school sooner than March 1. Recently, they raised money to put up several billboards around town . During the meeting when the school board was deciding when and how to send students back to the buildings, there were more than 1,000 people watching the livestream.

For some of the parents dropping students off on Monday, however, there were still some mixed feelings. Xylina Vasquez said she was a little nervous about her first-grade daughter Bethenni returning to school.

"I’m a little nervous, but they’ve been enforcing the social distancing and the masks, so we’re pretty confident,” Vasquez said, while also clarifying that the return will be good for her daughter. “She did not do well with online learning; she needs to be in class. She just has that kind of a social personality.”

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Scarlet Stanislawski gives a good-bye hug to her boys Cruiz and Declan as they head back to school Monday, March 1, 2021, at Franklin Elementary in Rochester. "I'm happy they are heading back," said Stanislawski. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

Another parent, Gigi Sweet, said she’d taught her second-grade daughter, Hope, to be proactive about taking precautions.

“I’m a nurse, so I think I taught her a little too well,” Sweet said. “This morning, I touched her cup, and she said ‘you touched my cup, mom… I have to wash it.’”

Nonetheless, Sweet said Hope does better at school, so it's good she’s able to return.

Secondary students in Rochester are set to return to in-person learning April 5. On Tuesday, the Rochester School Board will discuss whether that date is do-able based on current local COVID-19 data.

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Children head back to school and back to class Monday, March 1, 2021, at Franklin Elementary and other elementary schools in Rochester. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

Gov. Tim Walz recently gave school districts a push toward reopening , saying he would like to see all districts offer some sort of in-person learning starting March 8.

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Other school districts in the area have been moving toward in-person learning as well. Dover-Eyota will move its elementary students to five-days a week in-person and its secondary students to four days a week in-person on March 15. Byron Public Schools will start to transition its secondary students back to in-person learning March 8. Stewartville's secondary students also will return to in-person learning with a rolling start on March 15. Pine Island will follow a little bit later, returning its secondary students to in-person learning March 30.

Sophie Vanderheiden's return to Franklin isn't exactly the same as it was last year. For one, she has to wear a mask. But, it doesn't seem like that will be able to slow her down very much.

“I’m super excited,” Sophie said about being back at school. “I couldn’t sleep last night.”

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Children head back to school and back to class Monday, March 1, 2021, at Franklin Elementary and other elementary schools in Rochester. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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