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Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Salt Lake students head back to class for first time this school year on wintry January morn

By Marjorie Cortez, Deseret News | Posted - Jan. 25, 2021 at 1:26 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time this school year, preschoolers, kindergartners and first-graders returned to classrooms at Washington Elementary School Monday, the first among Salt Lake City School District students who will transition to in-person learning.

Principal John Kelly said even though students have been engaging in virtual learning since September, Washington educators and staff have missed seeing them in person.

"We're just very excited to be back. I have one teacher who almost broke out in tears. She was so elated to have students back with her," he said.

The day started with breakfast, with the school combining the gym and cafeteria to help with social distancing.

"The kids were just excited to see familiar adult faces, see one another. We're all pretty excited by the whole thing," said Kelly, who has been principal of the school for five years, preceded by one year as an assistant principal.

Kelly said about 320 students from kindergarten to sixth grade attend Washington Elementary and 85% wanted to return to in-person learning. About 30 preschoolers also attend the school.

"We were surprised by that. We thought it would be closer to 60-40 or even 70-30. So to be over 80%, we were surprised how much the community at Washington really wants the in-person option," he said.

About 30 preschoolers also attend the school in the Marmalade Hill neighborhood.

Because of COVID-19 precautions, parents were not allowed in the school, which meant they had to say goodbye to their children outside the building.

Amber Pedersen, a kindergarten student teacher at
Washington Elementary School, center, practices social distancing
butterfly arms with kindergarten students as they return to
in-person learning for the first time since spring 2020 at the
school in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021.
Amber Pedersen, a kindergarten student teacher at Washington Elementary School, center, practices social distancing butterfly arms with kindergarten students as they return to in-person learning for the first time since spring 2020 at the school in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. (Photo: Amber Pedersen, a kindergarten student teacher at Washington Elementary School, center, practices social distancing butterfly arms with kindergarten students as they return to in-person learning for the first time since spring 2020 at the school in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. The Salt Lake City School District is the last district in the state to return to the classroom. Parents can still select online options however.)

It's just one change in practice the students and faculty are adjusting to, along with wearing masks, social distancing as much as possible and heightened attention to personal and building hygiene.

Salt Lake City School District was the last district statewide to offer an in-person learning option to families. It has been under increasing pressure from the Utah Legislature and a lawsuit filed by a group of parents seeking a ruling ordering the district to offer an in-person learning option, although some local school board members say neither swayed them to resume in-person learning.

Kelly said his focus, and that of the faculty and staff, has been to support the educational choices of students and their families.

From December 2020:

"I've just appreciated that our Washington community has been so supportive of the plan that we've sent out. My teachers and my staff have been so great to work with. It's a collaborative effort and we feel like we're doing our best to meet the needs of the students," he said.

Elementary school schools will return to Salt Lake schools in phases. Second and third graders have the option of returning in-person learning on Feb. 1, followed by students in grades 4-6 on Feb. 8. Families also have the option of continuing with virtual learning.

The school board voted last week to offer the option of in-person learning two days a week in its middle and high schools starting Feb. 8. Wednesdays will remain a digital learning day and high school students can choose which classes to attend in person and which classes to attend remotely.

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Marjorie Cortez

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