When Utah students return to public schools, what will it look like?

Some countries require students to wash their hands hourly and staff to wear masks

By Marjorie Cortez

May 7, 2020

A student leaves Murray High School after the 2:30 p.m. bell on March 12, the day Murray City School District announced it was closing its schools due to the pandemic. The State School Board is now grappling with what the education system can do to reopen classrooms.
A student leaves Murray High School after the 2:30 p.m. bell on March 12, the day Murray City School District announced it was closing its schools due to the pandemic. The State School Board is now grappling with what the education system can do to reopen classrooms.

SALT LAKE CITY — Never has so much thought and planning been put into Utah students’ return to public schools next term.

Everything from when will it be safe for students, teachers and staff to return to school to the best ways to structure learning environments to hygiene regimens are being reviewed as Utah public school leaders determine the best — and safest — way to move forward. In-classroom learning was halted in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson briefed the Utah State Board of Education Thursday on the “path forward,” which includes ramping up learning, busing of students, technological needs and even a consideration of how often students should wash their hands.

“Everybody wants to know — I’m sure they all ask you as board members — what’s going to happen in the fall? Will we be open?” Dickson said.

It all depends on the state’s level of risk, she said.

Currently, Utah is at a moderate or “orange” level of risk, according to the state’s color-coded risk assessment system.

Red is high risk; orange means moderate risk for everyone, but still high risk for people over age 65 or those with underlying health conditions. Yellow is low risk for everyone except the vulnerable, and green would mean back to “normal” levels of risk.

As conditions change, levels of risk change and “we follow that closely,” Dickson said. One thing is certain, making adjustments to a public school system “is really tricky,” she said.

“As I meet with my peers twice a week, we are talking about these very things. How do we create scenarios where at any given time we can be nimble? That really means a new level of adaptation that we haven’t seen before,” Dickson said.Report ad

There are academic considerations but also a host of public health considerations, the likes of which schools have not had to address in the past.

Many states are considering how to bridge learning over the summer, whether that means formal in-school instruction or recommending that students spend 30 minutes a day focused on math and literacy.

Some options could be “looping,” which means students remain with their current teachers for another school year or perhaps just a few months to support their return to school and transition to the next grade.

“That might be really helpful in our lower grades, especially for students who have been feeling stressed,” Dickson said.

Perhaps teachers could team up in “shared delivery” of instruction where a teacher who is more adept at digital teaching could be paired with a teacher who performs better as a classroom teacher.

“Those teachers can share students and have different forms of delivery,” she said.

That is one option should schools have to offer a mix of in-school and at-home learning to abide social distancing requirements. Schools might also opt to have staggered schedules so there are fewer students in the building parts of the school day.

Dickson said there are issues of basic hygiene that schools must consider. In some countries, students are required to wash their hands every hour.

Dickson noted that very few Utah schools have no-touch, automatic soap dispensers. Do they have enough wash areas? Would hand sanitizing stations suffice?

Some schools lack equipment they need to help identify symptoms of communicable disease. Recent surveys indicated that some schools have no-touch forehead thermometers while others have mercury-filled thermometers.

Utah could use some of its Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding to purchase thermometers, “but if you’ve been following along, you know those are hard to come by now,” she said.

Schools will need personal protective equipment for staff and ample resources to ensure high-touch surfaces are frequently cleaned.

If a student has a fever, how will schools effectively isolate them until parents can take them home?

How to fight asymptomatic spread — in some schools, all adults wear masks. Should students?

How would schools handle busing if social distance continues to be necessary?

Would social distancing mean no school assemblies, back-to-school nights or other large gatherings?

Technology is another consideration. Is existing school technology adequate to support students if some instruction continues to be delivered digitally?

“It’s not just about buying new digital tools but it’s things like they’ve been out in the (students’) homes and so if they don’t get one back they need to replace it or if it needs repairs or updating software or whatever it might be. So it’s both maintenance of what they have and replacement costs in addition to schools who had not invested in digital tools to be able to send home to be able to buy those,” Dickson said.

Dickson said state-level officials are highly focused on helping schools find their way forward utilizing federal CARES Act support but also navigating uncharted territory while the state’s revenue picture is unclear due to the sputtering economy and record job losses due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We got the sobering news that we were all expecting, that budget cuts are coming,” Dickson said.

A “fiscal responsibility” resolution passed recently by Utah lawmakers while meeting in special session urges schools, public colleges and universities and state and local governmental entities to rein in spending and “refrain from committing to new or expanded expenditures for the fiscal year.”

HJR301, sponsored Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, tells public schools to prepare for the possibility that the education budget for the upcoming fiscal year could be pared back to the base budget passed at the beginning of the legislative session, which is last year’s budget and funding for enrollment growth.

Lawmakers will likely address budget adjustments in June.

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