Some first-time Utah teachers thrown for a loop on ‘unusual’ first day of school

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students at Canyon View Elementary in Cottonwood Heights line up on the playground as they go back to school for the first day of classes for the Canyons School District on Monday, August 24, 2020, with parents asked to stay back on the playground lawn while they wait for first bell.

Cottonwood Heights • Before her second graders walked in the doors for their first day of school at Canyon View Elementary, Ann Fisher gave each of them a warm “hello” and a required squirt of hand sanitizer.

“This is the magic stuff that helps us come back to learn,” said Fisher, as she pumped the bottle for every student in line. “It’s going to be our favorite thing in the world.”

Most of the kids nodded their heads enthusiastically, waiting 6 feet apart to come inside. A few giggled behind their face masks. And one, whose hands were already full with his new superhero backpack and lunch box, held up the class for a minute while he set his bags down to get his share of Purell.

It was a new kind of back-to-school ritual Monday morning as Canyons School District and others across the state welcomed students into the classroom again with precautions for the coronavirus. But it was all new for Fisher, who is starting her first year of teaching this fall in the middle of the pandemic.

“This wasn’t exactly what I expected for my first time in the classroom,” she said with a laugh, noting it took a quarter bottle of sanitizer just to get everyone seated.

The first year is usually considered the hardest in an educator’s career. Jumping in now, in the most “unusual” year for schools, is like a level up, Fisher joked — and she and other new teachers should get extra gold stars.

“Hopefully we can get through it,” added Tanner Telford, also a first-time educator, who’s starting at West Lake Junior High this year. “It’s a really wild year to be a first-year teacher.”

A lot of what both Fisher and Telford said they learned in college on how to educate students is complicated by COVID-19. That includes moving throughout the classroom and working closely with students one-on-one. Fisher said she can’t sit her second graders in large groups for a long story time. And trying to connect with kids with her face covered Monday was also a challenge.

Like most of the teachers at Canyon View, Fisher wore a pin with her picture on it hooked onto her T-shirt. That way, students could at least see what her smiling face looked like even as she wore her dark purple mask. It helped a bit.

Every kid had a mask on, too, some glittery, a few with Star Wars characters and even more with polka dots. “This is my favorite mask,” one student declared, proudly pointing to his spaceship covering. By the end of her first day, Fisher said she was happy that most kept them on without issue, though she found it harder to recognize her students and learn their names.

“With COVID-19, you can’t see your students faces, and you can’t hug them,” she said. “It really changes your whole way of teaching.”

Already, she added, it’s become a balance of educating kids as best as she can and keeping them safe. And there will be a lot of firsts for both her and them.

At Canyon View, that included new requirements for social distancing and hand sanitizer checks throughout the day — or, as Fisher’s second graders call it, “hand-itizer.” There were markings on the ground to tell students where to stand so they’d be 6 feet apart. And a few signs warned, “Stay home if you’re sick.”

It remains to be seen how the year will pan out in Utah while other K-12 districts — as well as colleges — 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. Some districts, including Murray, have been open for a week without any major incidents.

Telford said he’s hopeful after his first day and seeing that kids are following the rules in Granite School District. And he wants classes to stay in person as long as possible for his first year.

That’s how he learned to teach. He likes being in front of students. He also thinks they learn better that way.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t obstacles, though. His English classes, for instance, have to use Chromebooks to access all of their readings because paper books can’t be disinfected as easily, the district has said. That has limited what novels Telford can assign after he already created lesson plans to teach other classic works he was more familiar with.

“We have to deal with all the challenges of first-year teaching along with COVID-19,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy.”

After Monday, Telford is also worried about making sure his students who are choosing to do their schooling remotely stay caught up.

(Photo courtesy of Granite School District) Pictured is Maddison Steenblik, a new teacher at West Lake Junior High.

(Photo courtesy of Granite School District) Pictured is Tanner Telford, a new teacher at West Lake Junior High.

Maddison Steenblik, another new teacher at West Lake Junior High, said that’s shaping up to be the hardest thing for her this year, too. She was never taught how to teach online, especially in special education. And this year, about 40% of her students, who all have disabilities, are learning virtually. She’s got to balance that now with her kids who are learning in person.

Steenblik went into teaching because she likes working one-on-one with kids who need extra help. It can be hard to instruct a student to read, though, over a computer screen or even face-to-face when she’s advised to keep 6 feet away.

“You learn all of these amazing classroom strategies,” she said at the end of school Monday. “But how are you supposed to do those things when you have to distance?”

She was frustrated after her first day that she couldn’t get close to students to guide them along with their books or to sound out words. Starting as a teacher this year, she added, is going to be “a baptism by fire.”

“I’ve been told that if I make it through this year, I’ll be able to make it through anything in the classroom,” she said, laughing.

Joseph-Asiata Loi-On, a new teacher at Jordan High School, also joked that he couldn’t tell if he was more nervous about being in his own classroom for the first time or about educating during the pandemic. “Either way, it was nerve-wracking,” he said.

Fisher said she was scared to start, as well.

As her second graders lined up in the morning, she watched parents kiss them goodbye over their masks and nervously watch the sanitizer routine. One mom kneeled down and told her daughter, “I don’t want you to get sick.” Another waved and repeated, “Be safe.”

It was the first day of school for both Fisher and her students. And it was everyone’s first time trying it during a pandemic.