The kids milling around one hall and the folding table set up in another with schedules and maps for freshmen and newcomers matched up with how Livi Egbert had imagined her first day at Highland High School.
The tables of nurses administering rapid COVID-19 tests and the long line of students waiting to take them did not.
Monday, Feb. 8, was the first day since late March that the Salt Lake City School District offered in-person classes to middle and high school students. As a freshman, Egbert was eager to make friends and worried about how lunch would work — experiencing much of the same excitement and confusion she would have in August, had Salt Lake City schools not opted to be the only district in the state to hold all classes online until now.
Egbert had felt the district was taking the safest course by keeping classes online. At the same time, she was among those eager to return.
She’d struggled with the online format, especially with time management and focus. For the second quarter, she enrolled in a private school to get back up to speed in anticipation of her return to the classroom. If in-person classes hadn’t become an option, she said, she was considering transferring to a school in another district.
But the Salt Lake City district relented to pressure from parents and the state Legislature and opened its doors as promised last week. Egbert agreed to talk to The Salt Lake Tribune about what that first week was like. Here’s her experience:
Monday at 8 a.m.
Egbert had received a COVID-19 test at the school — her first time in the building — the previous week, allowing her to skip the line. The bell rang just as she found her first class, Earth science, and she squirted hand sanitizer into her palm from a jumbo-sized dispenser on her teacher’s desk.
Her teacher instructed her to pick an odd-numbered desk equipped with a Plexiglas divider.
The six other students sitting in the room were the same ones who’d been in the class with her since the quarter started two weeks earlier. Only, now she could see their faces — or at least the half not covered by a mask.
The rest of the class was tuning in via Zoom — with their cameras off, as had been their custom since March.
“What I noticed is no one really talks in class anymore,” Egbert said. “We used to talk a lot in class. It used to be loud. It’s not like that anymore. [The teacher will] ask a question and everyone just stays quiet, like we would be on Zoom.”
The 14-year-old noticed something different about her teachers, too.
“It was weird seeing the rest of their bodies,” she said. “ ... One of my teachers is super short and [another] is super tall. I just remember seeing everyone from like their head up. So that was really weird.”
Monday at 9:29 a.m.
Egbert wasn’t comfortable touching the same disc everyone else was handling to play Ultimate Frisbee, the activity her Fitness for Life teacher had planned. The students had all been required to douse their hands with sanitizer, but Egbert opted out.
Monday at 10:56 a.m.
Egbert was surprised and uneasy to see the desks in her math class didn’t have Plexiglas dividers.
After she asked for help with the lesson, the teacher asked her to move to the front of the room. Two students were already there and were sitting, at most, three feet away from each other, she said. Egbert expected her teacher to ask them to move apart, but she never did.
“This class was the class,” she said, “that made me the most uncomfortable due to COVID.”
At the end of class, Egbert wiped down her desk with disinfectant and a brown paper towel and got out of there as fast as she could.
Monday at 12:18 p.m.
Egbert usually liked school lunches, so she didn’t pack one Monday. But instead of a plate with a freshly cooked hot meal, she was offered a plastic bag of packaged food — baked chicken with baked beans and potato wedges, on this day. She said she blames COVID-19 regulations, not the cooks, for what she found to be an unappetizing offering.
“So I went to the vending machines to get chips, fruit snacks and an energy drink,” she said.
Looking for a place to enjoy lunch with her friend, she saw only four people could sit at a table at a time. A big, red “X” marked an area in the center of each bench that was off limits. Egbert said that was the strangest part of coming back to school during the pandemic.
“My table is always, like, filled up. I just talk to a lot of people. There’s always somebody there,” she said. “And then just having like four people at the table and everyone else, like standing there, or like at another table, was weird.”
Her final class of the day was language arts. After it ended, her mom picked her up and drove her home. She had survived her first day.
Tuesday at 7:30 a.m.
Egbert woke up with just enough time to get some breakfast before attending her first class of the day — in her pajamas via Zoom from the comfort of her bed.
The Salt Lake City district is currently offering middle and high school students only a hybrid model, which means they attend school in person on Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays, depending one where a student’s surname falls in the alphabet. The other days they attend classes via Zoom, except for Wednesdays, when all students study independently online at their own pace.
“I was happy because I was exhausted,” Egbert said of staying home. “It was kind of weird to go back to a public school where there’s so many people, and I’m trying to get from one floor to the other. I was really tired.”
Her elementary school-aged brother was also learning at home, because her mother had opted not to send him back into in-person classes full time.
Egbert tuned in just as her Earth science teacher gave a new batch of in-person students the same instructions she’d given a day earlier: sanitize, mask up and stay in their respective areas of the room. Those on Zoom were dismissed early to give the classroom students time to wipe down their desks.
Tuesday at 9:29 a.m.
Egbert couldn’t find a Zoom link to her physical education class. Then she remembered she had noticed the previous day that her Fitness for Life teacher wasn’t simultaneously teaching online.
Before the return to school, students had been asked to log into an app called “Rack” and follow a workout. So she pulled it up and did what she said most students had been doing since the class started: “I did about half the workout and then just let the rest play because I was so tired.”
Wednesday at 11 a.m.
Egbert didn’t have any live classes to tune into, so she slept in. She logged in to find she had a couple of assignments in math and language arts that she needed to complete.
“That was all my school for the day,” she said. “I was going to get onto the online math tutoring class, but I forgot, so for the rest of the day I spent time with my family.”
Thursday at 8 a.m.
Panic hit Egbert. She’d overslept and the first bell was ringing at school just as she was opening her eyes.
Thanks to technology, though, it wasn’t a big deal. She tuned into the first half of her Earth science class via Zoom while she got ready for school. She then messaged her teacher through the group chat that she was logging off and would be at the school in five minutes. She got to Highland in time for the second half and said she was even able to finish the assigned work on time.
Thursday at 9:29 a.m.
Ultimate Frisbee was on the schedule again for Egbert’s fitness class. This time, she decided to join in “even with COVID, because gym is so boring if you are not doing anything.”
The students wore jerseys to show what team they were on. After they finished, they spread them out on the floor where they were sprayed with a sanitizer.
Thursday at 10:56 a.m.
Egbert has two teachers for math, one who works remotely and one in the classroom. On this day, the one who works remotely was teaching via a video playing on a smartboard. Every once in a while, the in-person instructor would pause the video to go over a detail or answer questions.
“I liked it this way,” Egbert said, “so that we could all be learning but still be learning when someone needed help with something.”
After another vending machine lunch, supplemented by snacks from her bag, she headed to her final in-person class of the week.
Thursday at 12:53 p.m.
Her language arts teacher had disappeared.
He had begun to feel sick with symptoms similar to those caused by COVID-19 and had emailed the class that he would be staying home. Though a substitute was called in, he only monitored the class. Meanwhile, all the students in the room opened their computers and logged into a class on “Romeo and Juliet” being taught by their regular teacher from his home office.
It wasn’t ideal, Egbert said. She and many of her classmates had forgotten to bring headphones. Two of the students blasted the lesson from their computers, but because they were sitting close to one another, the students had to try to make out the teacher’s words through a barrage of audio feedback.
“The substitute didn’t know how to [play the sound] on the speakers” in the classroom, Egbert said. “And so it was like echoing, like you can hear [the teacher] say one thing and then say it again.”
Friday at 12:53 p.m.
Egbert logged into her language arts class concerned she would again have to listen to feedback and echos instead of Shakespearean sonnets. To her relief, her teacher was back in the classroom.
“He started the class off by saying he had gotten another COVID test and it came back negative,” she said.
After reading a few chapters aloud, the students each wrote a summary, then were released to enjoy a long Presidents Day weekend.
Egbert was eager for the break, she said. But she’s also still excited to go back.