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Michael Rosas Ceronio used to think about his older peers at Lake­ville South High School and feel sympathy about all the milestones they lost to the pandemic.

There was the class of 2020, whose members ended their senior year at home, in lockdown. The 2021 seniors shuffled between distance and in-person learning, quarantine and canceled events.

By the time he was an upperclassman, he figured, all of this would be sorted out. But as he prepares to start his junior year, against a backdrop of another COVID-19 surge and angry disputes over school mask policies, Rosas Ceronio has realized that his losses are also adding up.

"Now my high school experience is looking like all my four years are going to be messed up," he said. "And that's something I'm a bit saddened by."

Across Minnesota, students are leaping — or trudging — into a third school year shaded by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a major shift from last fall, the vast majority will begin the year in person this week. Most school-sponsored extracurricular events are back, too, with some modifications. School leaders are expressing hopes for a year that feels a bit more like pre-pandemic times.

But students' experiences will be varied. Absent last year's state mandates on pandemic safety protocols, local school districts are making their own decisions on whether to require students and staff to wear masks, or quarantine if they're exposed to someone with the virus. Already, the virus has made its presence known in schools; within days of opening last month Albert Lea Schools had 36 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 300 students in quarantine. The district, which had made mask-wearing optional, quickly reversed course and implemented a mask mandate for middle and high school students.

Stack all that uncertainty on top of a year and a half of academic losses, technology meltdowns, graduations and choir performances conducted over Zoom, family economic and health struggles, long-awaited reunions, and typical new-year jitters — and students are feeling a mishmash of anxiety, elation and resignation.

"We're excited for this — but not that excited, because we know that everything could be gone in a second," said Maneeya Leung, a senior at Eden Prairie High School. "I only get excited for things a week in advance."

New focus

For the many students who spent the most or all of the 2020-21 school year learning online, a full-time, five-day-a-week schedule of classes will be a major adjustment.

Ella Skranka, a senior at Winona Senior High School, said much of her junior year was a blur, with the district lurching between learning models as COVID-19 cases rose. After so many shifts, she struggled to recall how the last school year started. Was she at home? In hybrid learning? In the classroom all week?

"All of our friends, we'd be texting each other, like: 'Tomorrow are we going to school, or … ?" she said. "It was very confusing and I think a lot of people got frustrated because everybody likes a little bit of consistency."

Students walking into a new school or building may feel particularly uncertain. Last year's kindergartners, new middle school students and high school freshmen who spent the year online are starting out in an odd position: they're the new kids in their schools, even though they're now first-graders, seventh-graders or sophomores.

"We have students coming back with a lot of anxieties about coming back in the building — for both ninth- and 10th-graders, because it's new for them being in the high school setting," said Kendra Kuhlmann, a school social worker at Park Center Senior High in Brooklyn Park.

Kuhlmann said the transition might also be tough for students who struggle with social interactions. Others are returning after a year that left them dealing with symptoms of depression, grief and loss. Recognizing those needs, many districts hired more social workers, counselors and other staff focused on students' well-being, primarily with the help of federal pandemic aid.

Still, there's plenty of optimism. Kimberly Lloyd, Bloomington Public Schools' lead school psychologist, said there are many students who have dealt with serious struggles over the last couple of years. But for others, it might not take long to find comfort in old routines, even if they come with a few modifications.

"For some, even with masks, it's going to feel like just what they needed," she said. "It's going to be an easy click, and feel good for them. But some students might need more support."

Lasting changes

Martan Gregoire, a Moorhead High School senior and self-described "theater and choir nerd," is eager to attend football and volleyball games, and spend his energy on more typical senior-year worries, like visiting colleges and making plans for the future. He wants one more chance at high school traditions.

"Homecoming week is probably one of my favorite weeks, so if that gets taken away, that's going to be rough," he said.

Rosas Ceronio, the Lakeville student, is hopeful he'll be able to build some momentum with a podcasting club that was just getting off the ground when the pandemic hit.

The group's first podcast tackled students' perspectives on living through COVID-19, and he said there's no shortage of topics that he and his classmates could delve into: Afghanistan, the death of George Floyd, the storming of the U.S. Capitol. It's been a lot to process, especially while stuck at home, and often alone.

"Everything that's happened in these last two years has affected me greatly," he said.

In Eden Prairie, Leung is eager to reunite with friends for classes and activities like marching band, where she's part of the color guard. It will, she hopes, feel a bit more normal — though some things seem changed forever. One major shift: much of her school work has permanently migrated online, even as in-person classes resume. No longer does she need to stock up on traditional school supplies.

"On the first day of school I'm going to bring a pencil, and maybe a binder with 20 sheets of paper," she said.

Students said they're uncertain about how the heated — and often vitriolic — debates over mask mandates that have dominated school board meetings in recent weeks will trickle down to the classroom. Skranka, who serves as the student representative on the Winona school board, attended one such meeting that left her "very shocked and kind of scared."

Other students offered similar opinions about the brawling over masks, which has primarily involved adults. They said they know students at their schools have different opinions on the matter, but think many of their classmates are able to set aside their differences to achieve the thing most everyone wants this year: some normalcy.

"I'll wear a mask if I can go to school every day of the week for the whole year," Gregoire said. "I will sell my left leg if I can go to school every day of the year. I want to go to school."

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790