You might be surprised by which Salt Lake County school district has the most students learning in person this spring

Vaccines, grades and friends are among the reasons more are coming back to the classroom.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crossing guard Bing Kerwood helps students cross the street safely at Bonneville Elementary on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Salt Lake City School District has had 92% of its students return back to the classroom in person this spring, similar to other districts in the county.

Last fall, classrooms in Salt Lake City sat empty as the capital school district was the only one in the state to start the year entirely online.

But now, eight months later, they’re the fullest of any in the greater county.

It’s a surprising about-face for the district that only began allowing students to come back in person for the first time during the pandemic this spring. And they have returned in droves.

“I still have my worries,” said mother Karla Jimenez, who sent her three kids back to school for face-to-face instruction about two weeks ago. “But they’re so happy to be back with their friends. And it seems safer now than before.”

A little more than 92% of kids — or about 18,800 of the roughly 20,500 in the district— have returned to the classroom. That’s the highest percentage of the five public K-12 school districts in Salt Lake County. And the other four have been offering fully in-person classes since August.

So why the rush of students coming back in Salt Lake City?

District spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin said it’s likely because they were away for so long, longer than the other districts.

“It’s clear that parents and students here were wanting that in-person option,” she said. “And we were glad we could start to offer that again.”

Most of the kids in Salt Lake City School District hadn’t been inside their schools since classes were first moved online in March 2020. They shifted to remote learning as the coronavirus first started spreading. Then the school board voted for virtual instruction to carry on through the first academic terms of the fall and winter while others in the county and state reopened.

That means it was nearly a year before kids in the capital could start coming back in person again when the district decided it was safe to open its doors at the end of January and the beginning of February this year.

Now, the district’s middle and high school students who choose in-person learning are in school four days per week, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

“It was a really long time,” Jimenez said. “It was just a long time to be away.”

Jimenez was initially among a group of parents on the west side of the city, which has been impacted more by the virus, supporting the district staying virtual at the start of the school year. And she still stands by that.

But she said she’s glad the district has returned to holding classes in person now, as COVID-19 cases have started dropping and an unusual school year is close to wrapping up.

Increases everywhere

Even while Salt Lake City School District has seen the biggest return, all four of the other public school districts in the county have also had more kids coming back this spring.

The Salt Lake Tribune collected data from each district, comparing fall enrollment to now.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Though the other districts all started with having a majority of kids in person on the first day, Murray School District had the fewest sign up to be in the classroom to begin the year. On the first day, 67% of kids were learning face-to-face.

It now has 86%, a gain of 19 percentage points, and the biggest jump outside of Salt Lake City.

Doug Perry, the spokesman for Murray, said he believes it’s because of the small size of the district, which has about 7,000 students.

“We’re smaller, so I think people feel a little safer. The population isn’t as big,” he said, “and accordingly, we didn’t have lots of problems with outbreaks in our schools.”

The district only had one school — Murray High — reach 15 active cases of COVID-19 this fall. Other districts had tens of schools have outbreaks and had to shut and open and shut several times.

Perry said he thinks families were watching to see how the fall would play out. When things went smoothly, he added, many signed up to come back in person to finish out the year.

All of the districts also attribute at least part of the increase in more students returning to lessons learned in the fall and the weariness among parents waning when they saw that schools responded quickly to cases of COVID-19, staying sanitized and enforcing the mask mandate.

Jordan School District now has about 90% of its students taking all in-person or a mix of in-person and online classes. Canyons School District has 85% in person. And Granite is at 82%.

The latter two districts are both up 10 percentage points from the fall.

Even Salt Lake City School District started with 67% of its elementary students returning in January and has seen more return in the weeks since then.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s drawing more students back. And it is likely a combination of factors, including the availability of the vaccine, sanitation efforts, kids wanting to be with their friends and even the warmer spring weather.

Reason 1: Grades

Ben Horsley at Granite School District believes one of the biggest contributors has got to be the difficulty of learning online.

“We’ve seen lots of students coming back and participating and just doing much better in the classroom,” he said, noting that option has always been open to Granite students.

The district saw grades tank for the first term in the fall, with five times more students failing all of their classes compared to the same time in 2019. Most of those F grades came from students signed up to attend school online.

“Distance is a challenge when it comes to education,” Horsley said. “There are some students who do great. But for the majority, that’s not the case. That’s where we’re seeing most of our disengaged kids.”

Virtual learning tends to require more motivation, more attention and definitely a lot of savvy with computers. As students have realized what works best for them, many have returned to traditional learning face-to-face, where teachers are there to immediately help guide them. And Horsley said their grades have picked up.

He anticipates that next year, only about 5 to 7% of students will remain learning online. Currently, the district is at the highest percentage of the five in the county, with 15% finishing the year that way.

Jordan School District spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf said the students there are following the same trend. They’ve hired several staff members to serve as “trackers” for kids that have fallen behind and may be missing credits.

That has drawn probably hundreds of students back to the classroom in person, Riesgraf said, for the one-on-one attention, especially as graduation nears for seniors.

Now, 87% of the district’s kids are on course, which is on par with a typical year.

Grades were also a large issue in Salt Lake City School District. While it was the only district in the state to remain online this fall, it saw huge drops in student performance across all grade levels.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crossing guard Bing Kerwood helps students cross the street safely at Bonneville Elementary on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Salt Lake City School District has had 92% of its students return back to the classroom in person this spring, similar to other districts in the county.

The number of middle school and high school students who failed every first-quarter class showed a 600% increase — the highest in the county. And elementary students failed fall classes at triple the rate from the previous school year.

Up until January, though, learning online was the only choice for the kids there, with limited opportunities to meet in person with a teacher for extra assistance.

After five months of that, some parents say they jumped at sending their kids back to the classroom so they could catch up.

That was the case for Salli Fiefia, who has five kids in Salt Lake City School District. She’s home during the day, but it was too much to try to keep her second-grader, three seventh-graders and one eighth-grader all focused and finishing their assignments.

“I can’t give each of them the help they need,” she said.

Her daughter in seventh grade was failing her classes. And her son in eighth grade was constantly missing assignments.

Fiefia signed onto a lawsuit pushing the district to reopen in person, arguing that her kids weren’t getting a quality education online. Now that they’re back, she said, “they’re all doing well again.”

She added: “It’s such a relief. Their grades have all gone up, back to where they were before.”

Reason 2: Friends

Lisa Thomson said she’s seen a noticeable difference, too, in her twin daughters since they returned to school in person in February — but it’s been more along the lines of social and emotional health.

The 12-year-old girls, who are in sixth grade at Indian Hills Elementary in Salt Lake City, missed the interactions they had in the classroom the most.

One of the girls, who is very outgoing, Thomson said, now jumps out of bed in the morning, excited to be back with her friends instead of staring at a screen.

The other girl needed to be face-to-face with her teacher, interacting with her personally where she could ask questions. She craved that guidance and attention.

Thomson said that led her to sign the girls up to go back to the classroom.

“I just feel like it’s working so much better,” she added. “They’re both in a better groove. And that’s a big part of what school is, that social part that really just impacts everything.”

The girls’ overall moods have improved, Thomson said, as well as their grades.

Livi Egbert, a freshman at Highland High, said it’s the same for her.

“Online worked for me for a minute, and then I realized I’m better in person, getting to have help from my teachers and my peers,” she noted. “It was hard not seeing people. I like to talk to people and do things with people.”

When she was learning remotely for the first semester, some of her friends were in her classes on Zoom, but they’d turn off their cameras. And no one really talked or interacted. The teacher would ask a question, Egbert said, and none of the students would respond. It was just silent.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Livi Egbert waits for classes to start as students return to Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Now that she’s back in person, she noted, she’s interacted with so many more people. And even her classes are more lively and interesting.

“I have a whole new friend group,” she said with a smile. “I really missed that part of school.”

After the quiet year online, her mom, Marisa, added, too, “It’s so fun to hear her say, ‘Can I go hang out with my friends?’”

For them, returning to the classroom has been like a return to normal. This year was Livi’s first in high school and she missed a lot. Now, dances are starting again, and she’s been going to a few sporting events. Next year, she wants to try out for the cheer team.

It wasn’t an easy decision to return, though. The Egberts were torn at first.

The teachers at Highland, they said, have worked hard and made remote learning doable. And the family didn’t want to contribute to increasing the spread of the virus.

What really made them feel comfortable with prioritizing Livi’s need for some social interaction was the vaccine.

Reason 3: Vaccines

“Vaccination was such a huge piece,” Marisa Egbert said.

Though she said there were many factors, it ultimately came down to that for her family. “I don’t know that I would have sent Livi back without that starting up.”

In Utah, teachers and school staff were given priority to get the vaccine. In Salt Lake County, roughly 70% opted into the immunization. In Salt Lake City School District, the rate inched just above that average at 71%.

Marisa and Livi said that made them more comfortable returning. They didn’t want to put any teachers at risk.

Chatwin, the spokeswoman for the district, said she also believes that made a big difference in the return rate — and explains why it has continued to increase since January as shots have become even more widely available in Utah, including for high school students as young as 16 years old. (Livi is still a year away from that.)

“I think the vaccines have helped,” Chatwin said. “It’s reassuring for parents. It gives them a little more confidence.”

The vaccine has certainly helped get the virus more under control across the state, where case counts are dropping, but also in schools. Before, there were roughly 200 to 300 cases of COVID-19 a day reported among K-12 teachers and students.

Now, there are 50 to 80, on average.

With that decrease, Chatwin said, more families are feeling comfortable returning — including those on the west side that were initially more reticent about having their kids come back to the classroom.

The schools feeding into West High and Highland High, situated more on the west side and have more families of color, now have 94% and 92% of their students in the classroom.

The East High network, where more white and affluent families pushed for schools to reopen, has 88%.

Jimenez, the mother of three, lives on the west side and said it was a difficult decision to send her kids back to school. She and her husband both work essential jobs and they both got the virus. They were able to shield their kids but worried they, too, would get it by returning to the classroom.

But the mother thought about it, talked about it, searched the internet about it and prayed about it. And she signed her children up to go back when she signed up for her first dose of the vaccine.

The vaccine has made her more comfortable, along with the precautions the district has taken. Her youngest daughter, in third grade, sits at a desk with a clear plastic divider around her. “She doesn’t have to worry about anyone sneezing on her,” Jimenez said with a laugh.

And her sons in middle school and high school have also been wearing their masks, and teachers are good about telling students to fix theirs if they aren’t.

She didn’t feel safe sending her kids back in the fall when case counts were among their highest. This spring, Jimenez made a pro-con list, and she said the pros of better grades and social interactions outweighed her fears. But she still waited until this month, until the vaccine was more widespread, to have them return.

“It was really tough. I thought, ‘Should I send them back? Should I not?’” she said. “So far, it has been good, so, so good for my kids and a lot of kids.”