The only thing that seemed normal about Miles Jones' first day of school was that it started with his dad taking his picture, like he does every year.
“Smile big,” his dad instructed, “you’re going into sixth grade.” And Miles shouted “cheese” as loudly as he could.
But after that, instead of walking out the door and heading down the street to Uintah Elementary as he usually would, the 11-year-old plopped down at the family table. With a few clicks of the computer, he had logged on. The dining room quickly turned into his classroom.
“This is definitely not like school is usually,” Miles said, looking at the time as other students joined the Zoom call. It was 8:17 a.m., three minutes before the first bell would have rung.
Monday marked the start of a school year like no other for Salt Lake City students, who began their classes at home and entirely online because of the coronavirus pandemic. The district is the only one in the state to be returning remotely this fall, as administrators worried that COVID-19 was spreading too fast in Utah’s capital for in-person instruction.
Trying to begin virtually has been a bit bumpy, though. The first day was rescheduled three times — first because of the virus and then twice after a massive windstorm tore through northern Utah last week, leaving many kids without the power needed to access online classes. Miles joked while his dad was snapping his back-to-school photo that it was “actually take No. 3″ because of the previous false starts.
And Monday wasn’t without snags and glitches, either.
Miles' teacher started optimistically, greeting everyone with “Good morning, good morning” as they popped into the Zoom meeting. But it took about an hour for all of the students to get logged on.
Many couldn’t figure out how to turn on their computer cameras. Some kids were appearing upside down. A few never showed more than the top half of their faces. Parents appeared in and out of the 30 different video squares for each student as they tried to troubleshoot.
In the meantime, some of the kids got bored and started typing in the chat bar. Mostly, they just kept saying “cheese” and “hiiiii” and sending smiley faces to each other. At one point, there were more than 100 messages. One boy put a blanket over his head. As he waited, Miles sunk down in his chair until he disappeared from the screen.
“There’s still one hour until recess,” he groaned at 9:30 a.m.
Yándary Chatwin, the spokeswoman for Salt Lake City School District, said that some hurdles were expected for the first day as students adjusted to the new normal. The IT desk, she added, was busy taking calls Monday and trying to get kids hooked up with the right technology.
“We knew there would be some bumps, but we’re hoping to work them out," she said.
Miles' mom, Kelly, sat across the table and logged in to work at her job remotely where she could keep an eye on her son during the day. She spent a good portion of her time trying to help him through his school assignments.
Distance instruction, she said, has been hard for her son, who has difficulty with reading. She can’t imagine what parents do when they can’t stay home to assist their kids.
“It’s been difficult,” she said. “I know the teachers are doing everything they can. We really appreciate them. This is just all so strange."
On Monday, Miles' class tried to do some work in language arts. The kids took turns reading two chapters of “Maniac Magee” out loud together. They were supposed to watch for examples of figurative language. The teacher told them to write down the definitions of a metaphor and personification and create their own.
The assignment page, though, wasn’t showing up on the class website. And, even when it did, the students couldn’t figure out how to upload their work. Miles buried his head in his hands as he came up with his example for a simile.
“School is like a brick wall,” he said.
He moved to the next vocabulary word: “sarcasm.” Kelly quipped, “This is like when I say that today has been so fun.” She tried to help him write it down, but he was already tired and frustrated.
“Why don’t you take the notes?” he said.
“I have already passed sixth grade,” she joked, taking a few deep breaths.
The class moved on to math next. But the website where they were supposed to take an assessment wouldn’t load. The teacher started saying, “Well, this is just …” before another kid jumped in and finished the sentence with “depressing.”
By 10:09 a.m., Miles declared: “Sixth grade is too hard.”
The kids then started playing with their cameras while the teacher attempted to fix the math login. They moved their faces up close and far away from the lens. Some grabbed their pets to display. Miles chased his dog, Red, a black lab, around to try to get him on the screen. The dog just licked Miles, though, before turning his tongue to the laptop.
The students went back to posting in the chat. They wrote again about “cheese” and, this time, “goats.” At the very least, they enjoyed seeing their friends' faces again.
“I know it’s really different learning in front of the computer,” the teacher said. “The first day is full of glitches. But it will get better."
Glenda Woodring, who teaches fourth grade at nearby Jackson Elementary, told her students the same thing. She had about two-thirds of her 40 kids log on Monday. “I consider that a success," she said.
There were a couple of problems throughout the day. She was teaching science when her computer froze, and she had to restart it. But the students came back, and they returned to the lesson. Online schooling, Woodring said, will be a lot about flexibility and patience.
Miles learned that firsthand.
His teacher instructed the students to play a math video game to stay occupied. He loves Minecraft and had fun doing addition and subtraction with thermometers. Each time he got a question right, a little penguin would run across the screen. He shouted, “Yay. I got it!" It gave him a confidence boost after the earlier issues.
“You’re very good at math,” his mom said. “And I’m proud of you for trying.”
The students worked on the problems until lunch time at noon. At that point, a little more than three hours in, Miles was relieved for a break. But he was smiling big on his first day.
Families in the school district who need tech support can go to: https://www.slcschools.org/schools/remote-learning-resources/studentfamily-technical-support-information/