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Back To School Brings Fear, Excitement and Exasperation

Renee Bright

At the start of the summer, many parents, teachers and students in Utah thought they’d be returning to school with the pandemic mostly behind them.

But as cases of COVID-19 across the country surge once again, the new school year is off to a more complicated start.

There have been a range of experiences, with some parents glad their kids are no longer required to wear masks in most schools. Others are worried that schools’ limited ability to impose safety measures will lead to more spread of the virus and prolong what feels like a never-ending crisis.

Anxiety, Fear and Frustration

Renee Bright

Stefanie and Brad Plothow were in a dilemma at the start of this year. They live in Lehi, where their four kids attend schools in the Alpine District.

Their two youngest have health conditions they worry could put them at increased risk for serious complications from COVID-19. They decided to keep them home for a second year since their schools were not requiring masks and had limited safety measures in place.

That’s meant Stefanie has once again converted her living room into a makeshift classroom.

“We have lots of learning tools, I’ve ordered lots of curriculum and things, but I am not a trained teacher,” she said. “So it does kind of put me in an interesting situation. I mean we’ll have fun and it’s good. But it’s honestly a little bit stressful.”

Jon Reed
Stefanie Plothow is homeschooling her two youngest kids this year, 5-year-old Ainsely and 9-year-old Cameron.

Their two older daughters, who are not at risk, were desperate to be back in school. So the Plothow’s agreed to let them return on the condition they’d wear masks, knowing they’d likely be some of the only ones to do so.

After her first week, their oldest daughter, 8th grader Avery, said it was definitely a culture shock.

“If you look around, you can’t really tell that there’s a pandemic going on,” she said. “Usually in my classes, the highest amount of maskers is three others besides me. The lowest is only me.”

First Day Chaos and Excitement 

Renee Bright

The start of the year at Glendale Middle School on the west side of Salt Lake City brought a mix of chaos and excitement as teenagers, anxious for their first day, came pouring through the front doors, found their friends and searched the halls for their new classrooms.

Unlike in most districts, the students in Salt Lake are required to wear masks, per Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenahall’s last-minute emergency order.

SLC_Welcoming Students.jpg
Jon Reed
Salt Lake City is one of the few districts in Utah that is requiring students to wear masks.

“It’s good to come back here,” said 6th grader Mohamed Shelali. The 11-year-old had been online all of last year, with the exception of the last week of school.

He said it is weird being back, but he’s glad to see his friends again and doesn’t mind having to wear a mask.

District Superintendent Timothy Gadson, who visited the school on the first stop of his tour through the district, said he was glad to have Mendenhall’s order.

“We believe in masks and we believe in the science around masks as a mitigation measure to keep students healthy,” Gadson said, “and as you see, students are here, ready to learn with their masks on and we are appreciative of that.”

Over the Pandemic

Renee Bright

Most districts in Utah do not require masks and have opened with limited precautions in place, compared to last year.

In the Davis School District, 3rd grade teacher Patrica Barrientez said that made preparing for the year feel a lot more normal than it did last year. Still, the thought that schools could be forced online again is always in the back of her mind.

She said she feels the pandemic has been blown out of proportion and it should be up to parents — not schools — to decide what measures they want their families to take.

Davis_Patricia Barrientez.jpg
Jon Reed
Patricia Barrientez teaches 3rd grade in the Davis School District. She said things felt a bit more normal as she prepared for this school year.

But she said it’s up to teachers to make sure the same kinds of heated debates around mask-wearing don’t happen in the classroom.

“We have already discussed as a faculty to reiterate to our kids, if someone wears a mask, you're not to to be disrespectful to them or badger them about why,” Barrientez said. “And if they don't wear a mask, same thing.”

Only two other school districts in the state have mask mandates — Grand County and portions of the San Juan School District on the Navajo Nation. Since the 2021-22 school year began, there have been 776 cases on COVID-19 in schools, as of Friday afternoon. 610 have been among students.

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