It’s like having the whole family home again.

At least, that’s how Garfield Elementary School Principal Jodi Kennedy described what felt like another first day of school as she welcomed her third and fourth grade students back Monday, Feb. 1, after more than two months of distance learning.

“There’s been lots of hugs in the hall and lots of nerves,” Kennedy said after welcoming students back. “I think everybody’s a little nervous, but we’ve got about 30 new students who have never been to Garfield who came today, so getting everybody to the right place and getting back in a place to be comfortable is a big goal for us today, and we’ve been preparing for a while.”

The excitement on Kennedy’s face was apparent behind her face shield, as she cheerily announced, “Welcome back!” as students headed through the doors.

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About 70 Garfield students chose to start off the school year with full-time distance learning, and that number is down to roughly 40 now, with kindergarten through second grade students also transitioning back to in-person learning two weeks ago.

Students file into Garfield Elementary School Monday, Feb. 1. Elementary schools in the Brainerd School District welcomed their third and fourth grade students back Monday after having been in a distance learning model since November. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Students file into Garfield Elementary School Monday, Feb. 1. Elementary schools in the Brainerd School District welcomed their third and fourth grade students back Monday after having been in a distance learning model since November. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Fourth grader Jacob Brekkestran was one such student, nervous about going back to school Monday for the first time since last March. Dad Jeremy Brekkestran was happy to see his son back at school and getting back to a more normal schedule, as both parents have full-time jobs.

First grader Zoey Benson was a little apprehensive for her first in-person day of school as well, but mom Amanda Maines was relieved. Her daughter is shy, she said, so in-person learning is preferable to online.

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Jeremy Brekkestran gives his son Jacob a hug goodbye Monday, Feb. 1, at Garfield Elementary School in northeast Brainerd. Jacob attended school in person Monday for the first time since last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Jeremy Brekkestran gives his son Jacob a hug goodbye Monday, Feb. 1, at Garfield Elementary School in northeast Brainerd. Jacob attended school in person Monday for the first time since last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Kennedy thanked all the parents she spoke to Monday for trusting the staff and the district enough to bring their kids back. She said parents have been extremely brave and patient throughout the rollercoaster of a year.

Third grade teacher Kris Smith said she slept Sunday night like it was the first day of school. Even in her 31st year of teaching, she still gets excited to come to school and see her students. In the front row of Smith’s class Monday was Alivia Mangan, happily coloring away to start the day and looking forward to being back.

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Garfield third grade teacher Kris Smith interacts with students Alivia Magnan and Kevin Vice Monday, Feb. 1, when third and fourth graders came back to school after more than two months of distance learning. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Garfield third grade teacher Kris Smith interacts with students Alivia Magnan and Kevin Vice Monday, Feb. 1, when third and fourth graders came back to school after more than two months of distance learning. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“It’s because I get to see everyone at school, and I’m not stuck at home, and I get to see all my friends and play with them,” Mangan said.

Brainerd School Board member Kevin Boyles was on hand welcoming students to Garfield as well, and said as a new board member this year, the experience was probably the coolest thing he’s gotten to do so far.

“I think what stood out to me today was all the emotion — lots of different emotions were there,” he said. “We saw a little anxiety, a few tears, lots of hugs, and probably the biggest word is love. I saw lots of love — love from the administrators, from the teachers, the kids, the parents, parents and teachers hugging, all of it. We didn’t see any anger, and we didn’t see any frustration. I think that was a nice break for a lot of us, so it really, really charged my batteries to get to come and watch this today. It was great.”

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Students get off the bus Monday, Feb. 1, at Garfield Elementary School. Brainerd Public Schools welcomed third, fourth and fifth graders back to school for the first time since November, when students went into a distance learning model. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Students get off the bus Monday, Feb. 1, at Garfield Elementary School. Brainerd Public Schools welcomed third, fourth and fifth graders back to school for the first time since November, when students went into a distance learning model. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Monday also served as the kick off to “I love to read” month at Garfield, with staff planning several reading activities throughout the month to engage students.

“Of course, it’s all via Google,” Kennedy said. “Everything’s been recorded video this year, but we can still do things as a whole school, so just to have everybody back is a huge thing. Teachers in third and fourth grade have been waiting a long time to see their kids again.”

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Garfield Elementary School Principal Jodi Kennedy welcomes fourth grader Natalie Holmquist back to school with a hug Monday, Feb. 1. Third, fourth and fifth graders at Brainerd Public Schools returned to the classroom Monday after more than two months of distance learning. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Garfield Elementary School Principal Jodi Kennedy welcomes fourth grader Natalie Holmquist back to school with a hug Monday, Feb. 1. Third, fourth and fifth graders at Brainerd Public Schools returned to the classroom Monday after more than two months of distance learning. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

5th grade back at Forestview

Forestview Middle School teachers have been waiting for nearly three months to see their kids in person after distance learning began Nov. 5. But fifth grade teachers finally got some reprieve Monday, as their students made their way back to the physical classroom as well.

“It’s been wonderful,” Forestview Principal Jon Anderson said during a phone interview later Monday morning, describing the day as a sort of homecoming.

“The staff are just excited, and there’s definitely a different energy level than what the building looked like over the past two months,” he added. “… We’re just rocking and rolling with what we do best, which is educating our kids. It’s been great to see, just the enthusiasm level in kids and staff. You can just feel it around here.”

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Anderson gave props to his teaching staff for being so flexible this year, with having to constantly monitor the COVID-19 situation and make adjustments as needed.

Quite a few students who had been distance learning since the beginning of the year came back Monday, Anderson said, though he noted teachers are still diligently working to make distance learning the best experience possible for families who choose that route.

“We have had a great distance learning program, too, and if it fits that family and their needs, we’ll move heaven and earth to make sure they get a great education through that format, too.”

Sixth, seventh and eighth grade students are expected to return Feb. 16 to Forestview, and preparing for a seamless transition is next up on the docket for staff.

“We’ve got some planning and some work and some final pieces to put together, but quite frankly if they show up tomorrow, we’re ready for them, and we want them,” Anderson said.

High school students are expected to return to in-person classes Feb. 16 as well.



THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.