A Utah high schooler takes us inside the classroom during the pandemic

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Riley Arnold, a senior at Skyline High, relays her experience during the first week of school during the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020.

Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting in depth on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.

If it were up to her, Riley Arnold might not have chosen to come back to school in person.

Her five closest friends were all planning to take online classes. If she wasn’t going to see them face to face, then the 17-year-old at Skyline High figured she might as well stay remote, too.

With the pandemic, it wasn’t like this was going to be the typical, made-for-the-movies senior year she’d dreamed of anyway.

But the internet at her house in Millcreek is spottier than a Dalmatian, and her dad needs it for his work. When they’re both on at the same time, it crashes.

So — without much of a choice — Arnold packed her backpack. She agreed to talk to The Salt Lake Tribune about her first week. This is how it went:

Monday at 7:30 a.m.

Arnold was excited for her first class: American Sign Language.

When she walked into the room, everything seemed right. The teacher had a Plexiglas wall around her desk, which Arnold was happy to see. She’d been worried about how the school would protect faculty. There were sanitizer stations. And the desks were marked 3 feet apart.

The precautions were weird, Arnold said, but also comforting.

For an hour the students quietly signed “hello” and “How are you?” Because they weren’t talking, the masks weren’t much of a bother. It almost felt normal.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Riley Arnold, a senior at Skyline High, relays her experience during the first week of school during the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, August 28, 2020.

“It turns out, though, that I was a lot more confident than I should have been.”

9 a.m.

It was like an obstacle course trying to navigate the hallways to her next class. There were one-way signs that made it difficult to get where Arnold needed to go, and they mostly just confused everyone.

Some students ignored the arrows. Others stood in groups. Hundreds shuffled around about 1 foot away from one another at most.

Arnold finally got to her history room before the bell rang. It looked nothing like the class before.

There were no plastic barriers. And when she went to sit down, Arnold was handed a rag to wipe down her own desk. Her teacher stood directing the students while wearing a long pair of bright yellow kitchen gloves, the kind used to wash dishes.

Apparently, he hadn’t been provided with much protective equipment, Arnold learned. Many of the teachers had bought their own supplies; some spent more than others. A few just put a row of desks in front of theirs to block students from getting too close.

“It was like they were trapped in a little bubble,” she said.

After throwing the used rags in a bucket, though, the students got settled. And the teacher flipped on a videorecorder to share with those taking the class online.

Before he started with an introductory lesson on early Europe, he explained another oddity. Because of privacy concerns with streaming online, the district told teachers not to use students’ names in recordings. That meant he couldn’t call on “Luis” or “Andrea” to answer a question.

“You in the pink shirt,” he’d say. Or he’d point and say, “Anonymous student.” In other classes, teachers also referred to the students by the numbers put on their desks.

Arnold didn’t raise her hand.

10:38 a.m.

In most of her classes, there was assigned seating. In Arnold’s third period, literary magazine, the teacher snapped a photo after everyone sat down. He planned to send that to the health department for contact tracing in case someone got sick.

It made Arnold laugh a little. It was unconventional, but it was exactly what she’d come to expect from this teacher. Arnold has been involved in putting together the magazine for the past few years, and this year she’s the editor-in-chief.

She expects to pull together a great edition — probably filled with student musings on the virus situation, including their teachers quitting and their proms being canceled.

12:04 p.m.

At lunchtime, Arnold had planned to go home. But she walked past the cafeteria before leaving. It didn’t look as bad as she’d expected.

The school had split the students into two lunches so there wouldn’t be as many crowded together. And most students had taken their food outside.

Still, after seeing them in masks all day, it was strange to see her classmates’ full faces. It made Arnold worry a bit that this would be the most likely place for the virus to spread. And with that thought, she turned to the front doors to go find her car.

Arnold’s next period was study hall, so after walking into her house and making a PB&J, she settled in to start her homework. She was happy to be home and with her dog, Loki.

Tuesday at 7:30 a.m.

Arnold started her second day with the class she was most dreading: gym.

She’s active and fit, but P.E. has never been her favorite. She worried even more with the virus. How would they wipe down the equipment? What about the locker rooms? Those were typically dirty.

It didn’t help that when she walked onto the basketball court, one of the boys’ sports teams had just finished a morning practice and ran past her — none of them in masks.

After they had gone, the P.E. students were instructed to sit on the bleachers. There wasn’t much room, Arnold said, so the 30 kids were “all clumped together.” It was her biggest class and made her nervous. About half an hour in, Arnold decided this wasn’t going to work for her.

“I just did not feel comfortable.”

Granite School District allows students to pick if they want to attend class in person or online on a day-by-day and class-by-class basis. Arnold will finish gym online this semester, submitting a daily log of her activity.

11:13 a.m.

Later, in her psychology class, the students walked down to the library in a huge line to get their textbooks. Spaced 6 feet apart, they nearly spanned from one end of the school to the other.

Most classes at Skyline this year are paperless, and all students have been given a Chromebook to use to limit contact. But it’s been hard for teachers to get all of the readings online. So some classes are still relying on physical books.

Arnold said for those classes, another problem arises. To avoid crowds, the school isn’t allowing kids to use lockers. That means she has to carry everything.

She’s trying to get used to all the new rules and routines.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Granite School District prepares for the start of classes as crews assemble and ship PPE supplies and safety stickers to schools from the district's warehouse on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.

The school has shut down the vending machines, for instance. Students are prohibited from using the restrooms between classes. Kids have to bring their own water bottles, because the fountains are considered a hazard for spreading the virus. And no one is allowed to take off their mask and eat in class.

In some classes, like literature, Arnold is required to get a drop of hand sanitizer before she’s allowed to sit down. In others, such as statistics, she has to grab a Lysol wipe to clean off her desk.

2:10 p.m.

Most after-school activities, besides sports, have also been canceled. Arnold previously was the co-president for both Activism Club and Period Club (which packaged menstrual products for Title I schools across the country).

On Tuesday, she would have normally stopped into one of those before heading home. Instead, she popped into the literary magazine classroom to check in with her teacher about this year’s publication. Before Arnold could say much, he told her he was leaving.

“He let me know that some of his family was compromised,” Arnold said. “And he did not feel safe.”

For at least the rest of the quarter, she’d have a substitute for her favorite class.

Wednesday at 7:45 a.m.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The Skyline football field in August 2017.

The morning announcements mentioned the upcoming Skyline football game.

For her senior year, Arnold had wanted to get more involved in school, such as going to sporting events. But, like everything, COVID-19 changed that.

There’s a lottery system to go to the game. Students can enter their names, and the school would do a random drawing. The crowd would be kept at 25% normal capacity.

Arnold felt like it wasn’t worth it.

She’d also been discouraged that school dances were canceled indefinitely. She had only been to one before — homecoming her freshman year. And she was hoping to get out there more and go to at least a couple this year, especially prom.

“It’s a part of high school that I haven’t really experienced,” she said. “I feel like I’m losing my senior year.”

She’ll be applying to colleges this fall, including Georgetown and Emory. Before she leaves, she hopes she’ll be able to squeeze in some of the quintessential experiences.

10:38 a.m.

Arnold broke the news to her literary magazine classmates that their teacher had left.

He wasn’t the first educator at Skyline High to leave this week, she said. But her classmates took it pretty hard. “It was difficult to tell them,” she said. “You could see it on their faces.”

Arnold was also tasked with leading the class now that they had a substitute who didn’t know how the magazine worked. For their first discussion, she tried to brainstorm how they could involve those who were taking only online classes this semester.

“We settled on one person pulling up Zoom on their personal computer,” she said.

Thursday at 8 a.m.

Because she didn’t have to go to gym, Arnold took the opportunity to sleep in a little.

The first few days had been stressful, and it was already weighing on her. For each of her classes, the students had to watch the same two-minute safety video on the coronavirus. She could probably repeat all of the warnings word for word at this point.


Arnold had been wearing a red handmade mask that her mom sewed. Most students were following the rules, too (besides a few in the courtyard that she avoided). Administrators also stood in the hallways.

11:13 a.m.

Already, four days into in-person learning, some students had decided to go back to online like they had in the spring.

When Arnold got to her psychology class, for instance, there were far fewer students than there had been Tuesday. She hopes that she doesn’t have to go back to remote learning herself.

It was difficult to switch to that when schools in Utah shut down in March. She feels like she didn’t learn as much. And she had a hard time connecting with her bad Wi-Fi.

Arnold worries, though, that Skyline will be forced to close again sometime this year, believing it’s likely the coronavirus will spread there.

Friday at 8:30 a.m.

On Fridays, everyone has a digital day.

Arnold logged on to watch prerecorded lectures from her teachers. There’s no set schedule, so she can move at her own pace. And educators can meet one on one with those who might need extra help.

After an odd first week, Arnold said it was a relief to not have to go in another day. She’s taking the extra time to breathe before starting all over again on Monday.

If you have ideas for coverage of teachers, students and solutions to the challenges education faces during the coronavirus pandemic, please email ctanner@sltrib.com.