Parents want assurance students will be safe
School board approves school opening
plan with several amendments
By Suzanne Dean
MT. PLEASANT—The North Sanpete School Board has approved a plan to return to face-to-face classes Aug. 20, with the option for parents to keep children home and have them use online school software packages.
At a meeting July 21, the board amended a draft plan to remove a section providing for teachers to teach face-to-face and also provide on-line instruction to children who would ordinarily be in their classes, but whose parents were keeping them home.
After several teachers who spoke at board meetings said they could not be effective teaching both in-person and online and, after nearly 59 percent of teachers who responded to a survey said they would not have time to do both, the board voted to use “outsourced” software packages for at-home learners.
Meetings draw crowds
The board vote came after two emotional meetings, the first drawing about 90 people besides the school board, superintendent and district staff, and the second attended by about 50 people besides the board and top staff. Attendees included principals, teachers, community leaders, parents and students.
During the meetings, the board and public batted around a gamut of options for resuming school, ranging from keeping school online to going to a “blended” model where students attended in person a couple of days per week and worked online the other days.
People at the meetings also heard about dozens of actions the school district has taken or has committed to take to keep teachers, staff and students safe and reduce anxiety about returning to school. (See accompanying graphic.)
The actions include ordering thousands of reusable masks, N-95 masks, face shields and Plexiglas shields; setting up a “student support team” to address mental health; changing the filters on ventilation systems; and having designated entrances to the school for specific student groups with hand sanitizer at every entrance.
Deciding factors in the board’s vote for return to face-to-face school at all levels appeared to be the fact that most schools statewide are opening their schools as well as support from the Central Utah Health Department for a return to school.
In addition, surveys conducted by the district showed 72-82 percent of parents would send their children back to school, while 70 percent of teachers said they felt safe returning to their classrooms. In the second of two surveys of parents, which drew more than 1,200 responses, just under 10 percent of parents said they would keep their children home.
“We need to start school,” Superintendent Nan Ault told the crowd at a meeting July 16, a few days before the July 21 meeting where the board approved the final plan. “…We will certainly have options for parents regardless. But how that return looks is really what we’re trying to figure out.”
Ault said the district would not be able to enforce perfect social distancing. “What we’re going to do is create a plan where we can do this as safely as possible for the majority of students who are with us. I don’t think there’s any assurance that they’re not going to hug each other in the hallway.”
Another consideration discussed in both meetings was the need, in a high-poverty district, to support families. “You have kids who are at home, you have kids who are unsupervised…And they need to be fed,” Ault said. “That’s the reality of it. It’s not just the academics we provide. It’s the whole family support.”
Nonetheless, several people told the school board opening schools was not safe. One kindergarten teacher described the move as “risky and frankly unethical.”
“I miss my students and miss my theater program,” Alex Barlow, drama teacher at North Sanpete High School, said at the July 21 meeting.
But Barlow said returning to the high school posed the risk of putting up to 831 people in a “closed, unpredictable environment.” Without reducing class sizes, social distancing will not be possible, he said.
He added that evidence shows that wearing masks is effective only if people wear them consistently and correctly, ideally in combination with social distancing, things the district can’t guarantee.
Erika Briggs, the kindergarten teacher at Mt. Pleasant Elementary who described the move to reopen schools as unethical, called for first bringing back children in preschool through third grade, while all other children studied online.
If younger children were able to return without incident, the district could add fourth through sixth grades, while keeping secondary school online for the rest of the year. She urged the school board to “err on the side of caution.”
No absolute assurance
Sterling Whipple, a teacher at North Sanpete High School, said there is no model where students and teachers can return to school with assurance there won’t be an outbreak. He said South Korea opened its schools only to close them a few days later when COVID-19 broke out. He urged the board to consider online instruction and noted teachers had a month to prepare.
Regarding the online option, Ault said the district had built a website, http://www.NorthSanpeteOnline.org as a single point where students could access materials and software. Elementary children will use a program called “Pathblazer” while secondary students will use “Edgeniuty.” The packages are produced by Edguity Inc., based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and used by 4 million students nationwide.
Ault said the district would have a certified teacher coordinating online education. Local tutors would be provided for math classes. She said the software programs are aligned with state curricula and qualify for credit. Edgenuity has been used successfully at Pleasant Creek School, the district’s alternative school, which serves youth in custody and high school students who are deficient in credits.
A significant part of both school board meetings was devoted to answering questions from teachers and parents. Some of the questions and answers were:
- Will the state still require 180 days of school?
- Yes, although the number of instructional hours required may be reduced.
- If a child comes to school with a runny nose, how does the school know if it’s COVID-related or just the common cold.
- Nurses will determine if the illness could be COVID-related. If so, the child will be held in an isolation room until parents pick him or her up.
- Will concurrent enrollment classes for college credit still be offered?
- Do individual teachers have discretion in how strictly they enforce the mask mandate?
- “I would say ‘yes,” Superintendent Ault said, but added, “The bottom line is we’re trying to keep people safe.” She noted that N-95 masks and face shields would be available as an alternative to cloth masks. She said the masks the district had ordered for elementary children were small, soft and “very comfortable.”
- If a child can’t wear a mask, if for instance, a child gets a rash from the mask, where does the parent turn?
- To the principal. The principal in each building will be responsible for arranging all special accommodations.
- What happens if a teacher gets COVID-19 or has high risk health conditions and does not want to return to teaching?
- The state is providing 14 days of paid sick leave beyond leave normally available for teachers. Teachers who are high risk may be eligible for a paid leave of absence.