School districts across Utah are revealing their reopening plans for the fall, negotiating public health concerns and the needs of parents and students. The Grand County School District approved its proposed plan for the 2020-2021 school year on July 15, aiming to reopen schools for in-person learning on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
The Utah State Board of Education requires each school district to have a comprehensive school reopening plan by August 1. Schools, including charter schools, must address considerations like maintaining social distancing, school hygiene practices, policies for lunches and recess, large-group gatherings and whether and how to resume daily face-to-face instruction for students.
Under the adopted plan for Grand County, many aspects of a normal school year will continue: busses will run as usual, BEACON, mentoring, academic clubs, athletic clubs and sports will resume. Each, however, will be rethought to accommodate proper public health policies and protect the health of both students and staff.
A parent input survey was released by the district at the end of June to get a better sense of local concerns. The survey received over 447 responses from families representing 781 students in the system.
One aspect of the plan that proved controversial among area parents before the draft was approved was resolved by Utah Governor Gary Herbert, who announced that all schools would be required to have mandatory mask-wearing among staff and students in school buildings and on buses. Exemptions for those with health issues can be made.
Herbert made the announcement while refusing to issue a statewide mask mandate, as requested by public health and medical professionals. Herbert has instead granted permission for various local jurisdictions to require masks in public, including Grand County.
The announcement that masks would be required at schools has been controversial across the board, critiqued for being both not enough to stop the spread of the coronavirus and too aggressive a mandate for students. That polarization was reflected the Grand County response as well.
“If we go to masks and social distancing, which I realize may be a necessity to open the school we will not send our kids,” commented one parent on the Grand County School District survey. Another commented that “masks are essential.”
At the school board meeting on July 15, Grand County School Superintendent Taryn Kay stressed that staff was planning how to ensure mask-wearing among students while also having designated mask-free time when student can safely physically distance, like recess.
Under the statewide policy, masks will be worn “nearly 100% of the time” at school, Kay said.
“It will be up to staff to figure out times where students can be 6 feet apart so they have a break from mask wearing,” she said.
Some parents who participated in the meeting remotely expressed concerns about how staff would ensure proper mask-wearing. Kay responded that the issue was not dissimilar from other school policies.
“Masks are not a political issue; it’s a safety issue,” the superintendent said, clarifying that students will be reminded gently. If a student is repeatedly non-compliant, they will be disciplined.
“It’s not about the mask; it’s insubordinate behavior,” said Kay, adding that current disciplinary policy already addresses such behavior.
Responses to the parent poll showed a great diversity of opinion and circumstances, with a majority of respondents expressing their intention to send their child back to school in the fall.
However, when asked whether they preferred in-person classes to resume “every day as normal” or use remote learning or a partial school day to address concerns about COVID-19 respondents were split. 247 respondents said they wanted a return to “normal,” while 220 indicated they preferred remote or split-time learning.
Parents also commented on the needs of children with high-risk health conditions, special needs students, and the strain that distance learning can put on families with no internet service.
“I think if cases don’t reduce drastically, opening schools would be an irresponsible choice, no matter how anxious we all are to have our children back in the classroom,” said one parent.
This is a developing story and will be updated as more information comes in.