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DULUTH – Masked-up students returned to Duluth East High on Tuesday as the district began a new school year marked by the uncertainty of a surging COVID-19 pandemic.

A student leadership group offered candy and formed a human tunnel to welcome classmates into the building as streams of teens arrived well before the start of first period.

"Go Greyhounds! I know you're excited!" someone shouted into a megaphone.

Heading into the third school year upended by the pandemic, the Duluth school district is one of many in northern Minnesota enforcing mask mandates to keep students learning inside classrooms.

Being on campus with friends and teachers is a big deal, said East 11th-grader Ailee Naus.

"We were out of school for so long," she said. "To have the high school experience more accurately is exciting."

But it doesn't come without anxiety as St. Louis County remains at a high rate of COVID transmission.

"First, I think we are all very excited to see students," said Katie Oliver, a Lincoln Park Middle School teacher. But new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for schools are "vague," she said, and she's wary of looser quarantine protocols for schools amid rising COVID cases.

Per district policy, only students and staff diagnosed with COVID-19 must quarantine, and only close contacts who are symptomatic. Testing for close contacts is required.

East High social studies teacher Rich Updegrove said he feels safe teaching vaccine-eligible students, but he wonders about optional mask wearing in physical education classes and social distancing in packed classrooms and halls.

"There is risk involved," he said in reconvening en masse. "We have 1,600 kids at East and every 40 minutes they are walking through the halls, shoulder to shoulder."

Teachers are happy to be in front of students again, but are bracing for a potential return to remote learning, said Kevin Michalicek, a Denfeld High School teacher. The physics and chemistry teacher had to reconfigure hands-on labs for online instruction last year.

Some colleagues discussed quitting if instruction resumed online this fall, he said, because "it was just so difficult."

Jess Hehir, a parent of three Duluth students, said she's anxious about a return to school full time, not only because of the surge in cases, but because her kids haven't been around their peers much for 18 months.

"Social skills have been lost, and I worry about how that will emerge as they return to society," Hehir said.

Pat Isbell, who teaches fourth grade at Duluth's Lester Park Elementary School, said last year's mix of distance, hybrid and in-person learning left everyone "exhausted."

"Kids were troopers ... and parents were rock stars," she said, in rolling with the changes.

"It was interesting what we had to go through and it has made us grateful for this year."

Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450