Murray • Marilyn Armenta wasn’t at all nervous for her first day of first grade — but the same couldn’t be said for her dad, Juan.
While she twirled about in her new maroon dress and a backpack almost as big as she is, he sat nearby tapping his foot and watching the other parents dropping students off at McMillan Elementary. Did the kids have masks? Would they keep them on during the school day? Would there be enough sanitizer? Would the teachers be able to maintain distance between the students?
“I’m worried,” the dad said, “but I’m hopeful. It’s complicated.”
Juan Armenta has wanted his youngest daughter to have an exciting first day experience like her older sisters have before. The coronavirus pandemic, though, has definitely changed what that looks like. He’s less concerned about whether Marilyn will make friends and more focused on trying to make sure she doesn’t get sick during an unprecedented school year.
Plus, it helped little that the 6-year-old reassured him with a smile, “I’m going to make so many friends.”
On Monday, the Armentas lined up for class with Murray School District — the first in Salt Lake County to reopen and welcome students back in person for the fall. Parents and kids held hands as they walked across the grass to find their new teachers. Some stopped to take pictures. Others ran back from their cars, waving forgotten lunch bags.
It looked mostly like an ordinary school day, though there were markings on the ground to tell students to stand 6 feet apart. And everyone wore masks, some sparkly, a few with Star Wars characters and many with dinosaurs.
“Please keep your mask on,” one dad said to his son, a reminder of the unusual circumstances of the new school setup.
It remains to be seen how the year will pan out in Utah while some other districts in the country that opened up earlier this month have already shut down due to outbreaks. Here, the state requires there to be three positive cases in a classroom or 15 in a school before it moves online again.
To keep their daughter safe, Juan Armenta and his wife had briefly considered whether to just enroll Marilyn in online classes, which she did for preschool in the spring when schools shut down; Murray School District had been the first to close in the state after kids there were exposed to the virus. But her parents wanted her to make friends and interact with other kids and learn in the way that would be best for her.
They decided to at least try in-person classes for now, and Marilyn picked out a light pink mask with pandas on it to wear at school.
About 50% of parents at Murray School District, which has 6,300 students, will be doing the same, said spokesman Doug Perry. Another 20% will be doing all of their school work online. And roughly 30% have opted to do a mix of online and in-person instruction.
Kat Martinez said she decided to have her three kids, who go to Viewmont Elementary, do their school work online because she didn’t know exactly what this fall would look like in the classroom. “There were just a lot of unknowns going into that decision,” said Martinez, a member of the Murray City Council.
Martinez also noted that her ZIP code has had a 15% or higher positive rate in the last few weeks.
For those coming back to the classroom face-to-face, though, the district has instituted strict sanitation requirements. All desks will be cleaned at least three times a day, Perry added, when students first get there, in the middle of the day and as they leave. There are also hand washing stations all throughout the schools.
Each building has dots in the hallways to keep students spaced out and directional signs to limit crowding. Desks have been pushed apart “as far as we can get them.” There are staggered lunches and recesses. And there’s Plexiglass walls up in front of every teacher; many wore face shields and gloves, too, as they greeted kids Monday.
“We’ve put a lot of time into this to prepare,” Perry said. “We’re trying to minimize and mitigate any potential risks as best we can. But we also want it to feel as normal as possible for the kids.”
Peter and Sarah Brown stood next to their son before the bell rang. Tristan, 11, was ready to start sixth grade. “I’m excited about recess,” he said.
His mom made him a green mask to match the turtles on his T-shirt. She said she’s hopeful this year will go smoothly. Peter Brown added: “It’s a complex issue. There’s no easy answer.”
Both of the parents work, so sending Tristan back was the best option for them. They also said that he learns best in person. At the same time, they worry about an outbreak in school and wonder if classes will have to move online again anyway.
“I guess we’ll see how it goes in a couple of weeks,” added Peter Brown.
For the first two weeks in Murray District — which has seven elementaries, two junior highs and one high school — school will be done in half days. The district chose to do that to “just ease everybody into it,” Perry said. Students will be there for the first half of the day. Teachers will then be able to use the second half for training.
While Murray was the first in Salt Lake County to open, Washington School District in southern Utah started late last week. And Wasatch County School District in northern Utah began Monday, as did the Catholic schools in the state. The other K-12 districts along the Wasatch Front are scheduled to start next week, except for Salt Lake City School District, which begins entirely online on Sept. 8.
All around, though, the first-day jitters are expected to be a little higher than usual.
Tiffany O’Neil said she’s tried not to be nervous and has been working to teach her 6-year-old son, Gage, to keep his mask on and socially distance. He’s gotten so good at using sanitizer, she joked, that he comes into the kitchen while she’s making dinner and makes her put some on her hands before she cooks.
Gage is going into first grade at McMillan Elementary and wore a red Superman mask. That’s his favorite color, he said. And he’s most excited about “all of it” on his first day.
He got in line next to the Armenta family and will be in the same class as Marilyn. As the kids walked inside, their parents waved.
“Have fun,” they shouted. “Be safe!”