Schools closed, many go to electronic instruction
By Suzanne Dean
In the battle against the corona virus, the news can change very quickly as it did last week for Sanpete County schools.
On Wednesday, March 11, the South Sanpete School District issued a letter to parents saying, “At this time, there is no need to worry about school closure, restricted extracurricular activities or group gatherings. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be extra vigilant…”
Two days later, ironically on Friday, March 13 at 4 p.m., superintendents in both districts were asked to tune into a videoconference where Gov. Gary Herbert and state school officials announced closure of all schools statewide for at least two weeks.
At 5 p.m. that day, the North Sanpete and South Sanpete school boards both held emergency meetings where superintendents laid out plans to give teachers two days to prepare, after which students would work on lessons at home, mostly through on-line resources.
“It’s all new territory,” said Kent Larsen, superintendent in South Sanpete. “We have a great advantage in being one to one (having an iPad for nearly every student). It’s going to be a challenge, but we see some positive things. We’ll learn a whole lot” about using technology to deliver instruction.
Both districts were developing plans to continue providing meals to students. Nearly 50 percent of students in both districts qualify for free breakfast and lunch.
South Sanpete said it would deliver lunches to various school grounds and to some LDS meetinghouses. Parents can bring children by and pick up a lunch for every child in their cars. Larsen said the district would not verify school lunch eligibility.
North Sanpete said children would need their lunch numbers. The district said it would prepare “sack brunches,” enough food for both breakfast and lunch, and hand the bags out at elementary schools, or in more remote parts of the district, at school bus stops.
For now, teachers only need to be worried about three days—Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week. Both districts had spring break scheduled next week. But Larsen and others in the system agreed the “dismissal” would probably be extended, possibly to the end of this academic year.
Both districts said teachers would remain on full-time duty preparing iPad-based instruction or hard-copy materials and would receive their full salaries. North Sanpete specified that teachers would be required to send out lessons, activities and assignments each day for every class.
But at the emergency board meeting in North Sanpete, Superintendent Sam Ray expressed concern about “classified” staff—paraeducators, janitors, cooks and bus drivers.
The school board agreed paraeducators could help teachers with lesson preparation, cooks would prepare “sack brunches,” bus drivers could deliver food to pickup points, and janitorial staff could clean and disinfect buildings.
The board seemed to agree that employees could use accumulated sick leave if there was no work for them. If they didn’t have sick leave, they might be able to make up lost hours when work became available.
Most teachers started thinking through what they would put together for students over last weekend, said David Ipson, principal at Manti Elementary School.
On Monday, Manti Elementary teachers had a faculty meeting from 10 to 11 a.m. Then “they dove in and tackled it,” Ipson said. “They came in and gave it heart and soul. The last teacher left as it was getting dark.”
At Manti, a plastic bag of materials was prepared for each of the 400 students with the student’s name on it. “Our paraprofessionals helped organize everything and put it in bags,” Ipson said.
In South Sanpete, middle and high schools issue iPads for students to take home. Elementary schools issue iPads to third, fourth and fifth graders, but they will also be taking their machines home.
The bags issued to parents of preschool, kindergarten, first and second-grade students contained hard-copy worksheets and materials, even boxes of crayons. Bags prepared for Grades 3-5 included both hard-copy worksheets and the students’ iPads. Distribution of bags started Tuesday at 1 p.m. A 45-minute window was designated for each grade.
Ipson said when he thought about how to hand out the materials, he thought about something he had seen at a Chick-Fil-A when there was a lineup of cars.
He arranged for barriers that formed a lane next to the school on parts of 100 South and 100 West. As cars entered the lane, paraeducators in yellow safety vests stopped the cars and asked the parents for the names of their students. They called the names up to the front of the line.
The lane turned and ran along 100 West where eight tables were set up containing bags for different grades and from different teachers. A staff member found the bag for each student. By the time a car got to the front of the line, the staff member was ready to hand the materials bag or bags through the car window.
Ipson said public works staff from Manti City helped set up the barriers. Deputy Kenny Kirkham, the school resource officer, came by to direct traffic. And Ken Lindsay, a staff member at the Manti Temple, came over with safety vests that had been used at the Mormon Miracle Pageant.
“It’s a neat thing when people help us through this trial, to see the love within the community. It brings people together,” Ipson said.
At North Sanpete High School, Ben Cox, a counselor who also teaches journalism and English, said, “We’re in pretty good shape. We have a ton of on-line resources. The method of delivery is primarily the Internet, and there’s a lot we can do with it.”
Students at North Sanpete already had iPads, so they didn’t need to pick anything up. The students will log into Canvas, a site designed for exchange of communication between teachers and students. They can watch videotaped lessons, read messages from their teachers, and post completed assignments.
If families don’t have Internet at home, CentraCom Interactive of Fairview has offered to provide free internet for one month. If a family is already a customer, CentraCom will upgrade their speed free for a month.
“I know they’ve had a lot of people call and take them up on that offer,” Cox said.
Cox said one of his main roles as a counselor is answering all manner of questions from students and parents. Between last Friday, March 13 and Tuesday, he answered more than 90 emails and dozens of phone calls.
“I’m trying to do what I do every day without all the people I need right here,” he said. “My fingers are tired.”
In Utah, students are required to attend school for 180 days. But Larsen said the Utah State Office of Education has agreed to reduce the requirement by at least two days to account for Monday and Tuesday when schools were preparing for home-based instruction.
End-of-year standardized tests have been scheduled the last week in April and first week in May. The state office has given schools permission to postpone the tests. “We haven’t been told how it will happen,” Larsen said, “but it will happen.”