District working on back-to-school scenarios
By Robert Green
Remember when going to back to school meant shopping for a new pair of jeans?
Now, due to the new coronavirus pandemic, the very act of holding class has Sanpete County school district officials preparing for every contingency.
“There are lots of unknowns,” said Ralph Squire, superintendent of the South Sanpete School District. “Unprecedented. We have never faced this situation before.”
In preparing for the opening of school on Aug. 20, both the North and South Sanpete School Districts are proposing a return to face-to-face classrooms, with the option of online/virtual home learning. This may cause a bigger workload for teachers as they juggle both types of teaching.
Both school districts are still trying to figure out what scenario is going to work best for them under state requirements.
The North Sanpete District has called a special video conference meeting July 14 to specifically discuss a draft plan to open schools under COVID-19 requirements, said superintendent Nan Ault. The board will also meet on July 21.
Basically, the board will be looking at a three options: first, open classrooms and address everyone’s safety concerns; second, provide parents who want to keep their children home with a remote or online option; and third, a blended model, where students can attend school part time and stay home part time.
Regardless of the decision, there will be an online option for at-home students to get the support they need, Ault said.
“We want to see our children,” Ault said. “We want them to come back to school and learn from a teacher.”
But there is a contingency plan in place if COVID-19 cases get worse. “We have already been remote,” she said. “We have already done that. We can flip this instantly.”
Gov. Gary Herbert has recently issued an executive order that requires all students, teachers, staff and visitors wear a face covering while in school or on a school bus.
Ault said the board will be following that facemask order, but the restriction has caused controversy among some of the parents.
A big part of the work load right now is making the buildings safe to conform with state safety guidelines, Ault said. “We are going to approach this with the most positive way possible,” she said. “We will work with the individual needs of our employees and students because they do have concerns.”
The South Sanpete School District is also holding a meeting this week on re-opening, Squire said. “The plan is a work in progress,” he said. “It is a living, working document.”
To get feedback from parents, the South Sanpete district sent out an informal poll to parents by text-message, asking them if they favor face-to-face classroom instruction, Squire said. And almost immediately, 86 percent of the respondents answered back. A large majority, almost 85 percent, said they favored a return to the classroom, he said. And the other 15 percent said they didn’t want their kids in school, but preferred a virtual/online method.
The district has drafted a proposal to accommodate most of the parent’s needs. “We need to be nimble and adaptable,” Squire said. The district strongly recommends a return to the traditional classroom, with the practice of social distancing and face coverings. Teachers are also expected to manage online/virtual instruction.
Most of the teachers want to return to the classroom because they miss the kids, he said.
Ephraim Middle School teacher and co-president of the South Sanpete School District Utah Education Association, Tim Black concurred that most teachers are looking forward to returning to the classroom.
“I am one of the older teachers,” Black said. “And probably more susceptible; but I think there is a pretty good chance I’ll be OK.”
Black teaches art, science and health at the school. He said the biggest difficulty is going to be making time to teach both traditional and online lessons.
Many of the teachers feel like there’s going to be an extra burden this year, but they are willing to try it, he said.
Black’s biggest concern is the students’ propensity to congregate. The kids all want to get together with their friends and he thinks it will be difficult to maintain social distancing.
He has also heard parents’ grumble about their kids having to wear facemasks, but at the end of the day, he thinks most of the parents will send their kids to school.
At Wasatch Academy in Mt. Pleasant, the fall semester will start on Sept. 14 and consist of both in-person and online instruction.
According to Nancy Hewitt, executive assistant to the head of school, they are taking all the precautions to keep people safe. “We encourage everyone to be very cautious and practice all the protocols,” she said.
Student arrivals for fall semesters are being staggered to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Testing will be available and self-isolation may be required. Some international students will be arriving two weeks early.
Faculty and students will be tested throughout the year. There will be sanitizing stations all over campus; and there is even a building set aside for quarantine, if required.
The students will be spaced out in the dorm and classrooms, Hewitt said. In some cases, the school will use a split classroom, where the students will alternate between in-person and online instruction.
Thanksgiving break will be cancelled to limit travel and the semester will end Dec. 5.
All school districts must submit a plan on reopening to the state by Aug. 1. The districts are required to follow rules set forth by the Utah Board of Education in conjunction with the governor.