In the bustling halls of Wayzata High School, rows of metal lockers line the hallways, just as they have for decades — the quintessential backdrop of teenage life.
But almost all of the lockers now sit empty.
Today's students — who prefer carrying backpacks and are too cool for coats — are slamming the door on the nostalgic high school locker scene as technology has them toting fewer books and the pandemic has led to a change in habits.
That is prompting school administrators around the state to rip out the behemoths and reconsider design plans, as lockers go the way of the almost-obsolete chalkboard.
"Students just aren't utilizing them," said Wayzata Principal Scott Gengler, who noted that only about 100 of the school's 3,700 students requested lockers this year. "We get requests every year from students to remove the lockers that are in the way."
Wayzata recently pulled out about 100 lockers for a flooring upgrade and has no plans to reinstall them. New high schools — including those opening in Owatonna and Mora in the fall — are set to have hundreds fewer lockers than the buildings they're replacing.
Schools can then redirect the money and time required by secretaries and custodians to assign, clean, unjam and change the combinations of hundreds if not thousands of lockers. Meanwhile, students have more room to work and socialize.
"It's seen as a win-win because it saves on challenges and reinvigorates a space," said Sal Bagley, an educational planner at St. Paul-based Wold Architects and Engineers, which helped design the new Owatonna High School. "There are not a lot of win-wins when you talk about getting rid of something."
Change in habits
The move away from regular locker use began a few years ago, as laptop use increased. It accelerated during the pandemic when learning moved online.
Gone are the days of physical textbooks for each subject. While teens may still use activity lockers for sports equipment or musical instruments, administrators say they rarely choose to use hallway lockers to store books or winter coats (if they wear one at all).
COVID-19 doomed lockers for another reason: Lockers are difficult to clean, so many schools reversed policies that banned students from carrying backpacks during the day.
Once students could carry backpacks at St. Cloud's Apollo High, just a fraction of them wanted a locker, said David Leapaldt, principal architect at JLG Architects, which helped design renovation plans for the school.
Though the shift away from rows of tall, skinny lockers lining school hallways began years ago, "it took the pandemic for the adults — the administration and parents — to realize that they really don't need them," Leapaldt said. Lockers in new school buildings tend to be shorter and wider to accommodate backpacks, and school desks and other furniture often include hooks for students' bags.
The initial plan for Owatonna's new high school also included a locker for each student. But in researching designs, planning committee members heard from administrators at other schools who said lockers weren't needed at all, said Principal Kory Kath. The compromise was to include about 600 lockers for the 1,500 students in the school; students will be able to check one out for the entire year or sign up to use one for a day if they have extra items to store.
Wold Architects and Engineers often recommends schools survey their students or try offering lockers on a check-out basis only before deciding how many to include in a renovation or building project. The results often surprise administrators, said Vaughn Dierks, a partner at Wold.
"There are a lot of things at a school driven by someone's idea of what school was for them as opposed to what school is for today's youth," Dierks said.
Kath agreed, adding that parents and teachers often "wax nostalgic" about lockers and how they were a gathering spot. Today's teens don't have to hope to run into each other at a locker — they can simply text each other if they want to meet up.
As for school announcements once shoved into locker vents? Those go out via student email now. Sometimes Owatonna High creates backpack tags to give students a more tangible reminder of an upcoming school event, Kath said.
Owatonna High School sophomore Fernando Perez remembers being nervous when he got his first locker in middle school, which still requires students to use lockers to store cellphones during the day. He worried about remembering the combination and having enough time to get his books between classes.
"But middle school was the last time I used a locker," he said.
At Mora High, only a handful of the upperclassmen use lockers, said senior Saul Thomson. Rather than decorating lockers, students can now buy a parking spot at school for the year and paint it as they wish. Over the past few years, "meet me at my locker" has transitioned to "meet me at my parking spot," Thomson said.
And despite frequent school announcements about dressing for the weather, few students wear enough bulky winter wear to warrant a locker, Thomson said. Lettermen jackets are often the closest thing to a winter coat.
"I really don't know why that is," Thomson said. "In high school, nobody bundles up."
As students look forward to the new building, some adults are still stuck on the decades-old metal lockers. Mora High Principal Brent Nelson has fielded multiple calls from community members and alumni looking to purchase them for their home or garage.
"People remember those lockers, and they do want them," he said.