Granite School District students start 3rd year of learning during COVID-19 pandemic

Whittier Elementary School held its first day of classes Monday, days after the Salt Lake County Council voted to not require students to wear masks.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parents say goodbye to students as they begin the first day of school at Whittier Elementary in West Valley City, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021.

Wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle T-shirt with his backpack on, Bodie Brandol stood between two pillars of white, blue and yellow balloons, smiled and held up his pointer finger.

“First grade!” he said, as his mother took his photo Monday morning outside Whittier Elementary School in West Valley City.

While Bodie said he wished that summer could last a little bit longer, with more time for camping, he joined his fellow classmates in finding their new teachers on the first day of classes for Granite School District. Large blue letters on the front lawn spelled out, “Welcome back Falcons.”

Life has been “really busy” getting ready for school, said Bodie’s mother, Lindsey Brandol. But she said this school years feels “a lot better” than the last two that Utah students have attended during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The choice on the masks, I like that they have an option,” Brandol said. “...It’s much more normal, and I think it’s good for these guys.”

On Thursday, the Salt Lake County Council voted 6-3 on party lines to overturn a mask mandate for elementary students issued by county health director Dr. Angela Dunn.

Dunn had limited her order to children between kindergarten and sixth grade, she said, because they are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, only people ages 12 and older can be vaccinated.

To help younger children stay safe and healthy as schools start back up again, the state is providing KN95 masks to elementary students who want them.

Roughly half of the children outside Whittier Elementary School Monday morning wore cloth masks, as they lined up and found their friends. Oakley Drake, a third grader, wore a pink mask that matched her backpack decorated with puppies and flowered headband.

She wasn’t really in school last year, except for the very last little bit,” said Oakley’s mother, Taylor Drake, of West Valley City. The rest of the year was spent learning from home, she said, which was “kind of hard, but we managed.”

After a summer spent playing softball, Oakley was “really excited to get out of the house” and be back in the classroom with her friends again, according to her mother.

Latriesha and Neal Lindsey smiled as they watched their son, Keeyan, join his first grade class. “He loves to learn,” said Latriesha Neal, of West Valley City.

In the morning, Neal Lindsey said, they asked their son if he wanted to wear his mask to school.

“He’s like, ‘Do I have to?’” said Neal Lindsey. When his parents said he didn’t, Keeyan seemed excited. But if he does eventually need to wear one, Keeyan will be fine, Latriesha Neal said, because he’s already used to it from his time in kindergarten.

“We’re so glad that they get to go back to school,” said Amanda Best, whose child is in third grade. Earlier in the morning, she dropped off two of her older children at Hunter High School.

The West Valley City mother said she noticed her children seemed more excited Monday morning than in some previous years.

“I think it’s going to be more of a normal year — hopefully. If the cases control themselves,” Lindsey said.

As of Thursday, the intensive care units at Utah hospitals were over capacity. And on Friday, a football game between Highland and Bountiful High Schools was canceled after a player tested positive for COVID-19.

Standing on the front lawn of Whittier Elementary Monday morning, Jennifer Bodell, the school’s new principal, led her students in a cheer. After Bodell yelled, “we are,” the children responded, “Whittier!”

“I’ve been waiting for this day all summer long,” Bodell told them.

After the students in the school’s safety patrol raised the U.S. flag, their classmates recited the Pledge of Allegiance. They then followed their teachers inside, carrying their lunch boxes and new school supplies, and giving a last wave goodbye to their parents. One mother gave her son a fist bump and told him to have a good day, while another father yelled, “Love you, baby girl!”

“We hope you have the best first day ever,” Bodell said.