SALT LAKE CITY — On Monday, middle and high school students in the Salt Lake City School District returned to in-person learning for the first time in nearly a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Yuritci Cortez, a sophomore at East High School, was among the students who opted to return to socially distanced classrooms two days a week. As she and her classmates walked into the building, they were greeted by members of the school board and the school’s administrators.

Yuritici is prepared to learn in the classroom again — and to see her friends, hoping “everything goes back to normal.”

“Remote homework was so hard,” she said. “It killed me to be honest!”

According the East High School Principal Greg Maughan, about 70% percent of the school’s students are back in class, with the others opting for online learning.

The journey back to in-person learning has been an arduous one. This summer, the Salt Lake City Board of Education voted that the school district conduct school solely by remote learning. It was the only school district in Utah to select that option in the face of the pandemic.

Late last year, the school board voted to return elementary school students to in-person learning in phases, starting in January, but there was no consensus on reopening middle and high schools in the district.

East High School Principal Greg Maughan, right, bumps elbows with students as they arrive at East High School in Salt Lake City for their first day of in-person learning in almost a year on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

As the pandemic drew on, there was growing evidence that many students in the district were struggling academically and socially. According to school district data released in early December, the number of high school students who are completing assignments has plummeted compared to the first quarter of 2019.

Moreover, 4,057 junior high and high school students received an F or incomplete grade during the first quarter of school — up from 1,506 a year ago.

Then in mid-December 11 parents with students in the district filed a lawsuit in 3rd District Court saying the school board’s decision to rely on remote learning has stripped “21,000 students of basic right secured by the Utah Constitution.” In addition, Utah lawmakers overseeing the state’s budget gave early approval to a plan that would give K-12 teachers a $1,500 bonus for their work amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the Executive Appropriations Committee included a last-minute tweak to require the payment only go to teachers in districts offering in-person learning or some combination of in-person and virtual learning before Jan. 19, 2021, putting pressure on the Salt Lake City School District to reopen its schools.

On Jan. 19, Judge Adam Mow heard arguments on the preliminary injunction seeking the reopening of Salt Lake schools for an in-person learning option four days a week. The judge ruled Jan. 28 that the district’s sole reliance on virtual learning does not violate students’ constitutional rights.

The same day Mow heard arguments in the lawsuit, Senate President Stuart Adams, in his remarks on opening day of the 2021 Utah Legislature, referenced “alarming reports that in the Salt Lake City School District, where there is no option for in-person learning, there is a 600% increase in students failing all classes, despite teachers’ best efforts.”

In a meeting that night, the Salt Lake City Board of Education voted 6-1 to offer in-person instruction in its middle and high schools starting Feb. 8.

Students can return to classrooms two days a week under the plan. Wednesdays will remain a digital learning day and high schoolers can choose which classes to attend in person and which classes to attend remotely.

Contributing: Morgan Wolfe