WINNIPEG -- Thousands of Manitoba students returned to school Tuesday and stepped into an unfamiliar learning environment, more than six months after their educations were upended by COVID-19. 

“Anxious for sure, but excited because it’s back to school,” said mother Rodeleen Reyes. 

Her five-year-old son is starting Kindergarten. 

“He won’t really have anything to compare it to, so I’m hoping he takes in the whole experience,” she said.

Seven-year-old Vaughan is going into Grade 2. 

“I’m excited to see my friends,” he said. 

His father, Johann Baetsen, said he is ready to see students return to the classroom. 

“I think it’s time, we’ll see how this goes," he said. "I know that everybody has been doing a great job trying to put this all together.”

Michèle Olson, principal of Ecole Provencher in St. Boniface, said months of preparing went into reopening. 

“We’ve been planning for this since the kids left us last year,” Olson said.

Inside the elementary school, which has students from Kindergarten to Grade 3, the hallways are lined with arrows, water fountains are off-limits and class sizes are smaller.

“This year we’re doing staggered entry. So we will have half the group of students (Tuesday) and the other half Wednesday,” said Olson.

The school has around 270 students who are being separated into four cohorts, each named after animals, which is posted outside classrooms. 

Colleen Letkeman teaches Grade 1 at Ecole Provencher. 

“Our tables are spread apart, our chairs are spread apart, (there is) a little less furniture in the classroom,” she said.

The province said despite all the planning, it expects to see COVID-19 cases pop up in schools. During a news conference Tuesday, Manitoba Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said it’s important for the province to be transparent.

READ MORE: Education minister calls for transparency in reporting COVID cases

“Within 24 hours, there is going to be that contact tracing and notification if somebody has been a close contact of a person who was transmissible in the school setting, and then notification to parents,” said Goertzen.

Goertzen said the public health risk is higher for older children rather than younger ones. Masks are mandatory for students in Grades 4 and up. 

Most high schools are blending in-class and remote learning. 

Kaya, a Grade 11 student at Kelvin High School, said she is going into school two days a week and learning from home the other three days. 

“I feel equally safe at home as I do in school. They have all the right protocols in place,” she said.