Utah public, charter schools to continue 'soft closure' through end of school year

Utah public, charter schools to continue 'soft closure' through end of school year

(Laura Seitz, KSL, FIle)

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s public and charter schools will finish the school year through remote learning.

The state’s “soft closure” of public schools will be extended for the remainder of the year, Gov. Gary Herbert announced Tuesday. The last day of classes ranges from May 21 to June 5 among Utah’s public school districts and the final day of classes among Utah’s charter schools ranges from May 13 to June 5.

Herbert said the decision was made after meeting with Sydnee Dickson, Utah's superintendent of public instruction, the Utah State Board of Education, and other education leaders, as well as listening to feedback from teachers and parents. It was also announced as the Utah Department of Health reported 49 new COVID-19 cases — a slim 2.1% rise in cases from Monday.

“In order for us to continue to slow the spread and get back on our feet socially and economically, this is not the time to have our schools back open,” Herbert said from the Utah Capitol, during a press video conference meeting with reporters. “This is not an easy decision to make. We know it’s hard; it’s disruptive. It impacts not only our children, but it impacts the parents and families.”

The announcement came a little more than a month after Herbert first ordered a "soft closure" of Utah's schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Utah teachers have conducted classes through remote learning since March 16.

The dismissal measure was later extended through May 1 and now the remainder of the school year.

Prior to the extension announcement, Dickson said school district and charter school system leaders were looking into how to address final grades. Since some classes might be difficult to complete virtually, the state may use pass/fail or “creative ways” for determining final grades.

"There are a variety of things but we’re saying ‘do no harm, go easy, realize the stress of this time.’ We’re so appreciative of the teachers and students who are working hard to ensure learning continues," she said.

Those schools were also planning for the possibility of “virtual graduations.”

"I’ve heard a lot of ideas. I hope that students will think of some ideas as well and let their school leaders know about some of their ideas. They’re some of our most creative talent," Dickson said. "I know our kids can lean in with their school leaders and come up with ways that they can celebrate their many accomplishments."

A plan to get to the “new future”

Brenda Kraack, a math teacher at West High School in Salt Lake City, described the past few weeks teaching remotely as a “learning curve” for teachers and students alike. Her students are encouraged to join class when she’s teaching live, but because of possible time constraints — some students might share a device with other family members also taking remote classes or they might have a job outside of school — the lessons are recorded to be viewed later.

However, that still doesn’t address how abruptly classes changed even if she understands why it had to happen.

"It’s been hard, I’m not going to lie," she said, calling into KSL NewsRadio’s "Live Mic with Lee Lonsberry" on Tuesday afternoon. "One of the hardest things was when schools got closed originally. It happened after the school day, so I never had a chance to say 'goodbye, be well, see you online.' It was just, all of a sudden, school was closed. So now with the closure for the rest of the year, I still don’t have an opportunity to say goodbye to my kids basically. I’m dealing with some emotions in that respect."

The state school systems are working to figure out how to slowly get back on track at the same time Utah leaders are working to slowly reopen parts of the state’s economy. That’s been broken down into three phases, Dickson explained.

Right now, that’s focusing on making sure Utah students are still learning, that they are still fed, ensuring that students ready to graduate can prepare for higher education or the workforce, making sure social and emotional needs of families and educators are addressed, and that teachers and other faculty can remain employed.

“As we move from the ‘new now’ into the near future, which is Phase II, we have to really assess the gaps our students find themselves in,” she said. “We have achievement gaps, especially amongst our students who are vulnerable for academic failure and those are our students with disabilities, students who are learning English and many of our students who are living in poverty, and wanting to make sure they have the tools, the skills and the knowledge to catch up with their peers.”

Students who may need additional help to get back on track may end up with additional tutoring or in-person small group work, if possible, or go through digital options during the summer.

While we’ve had some advantages, we also know that many of our students have disengaged and we want to make sure we give every opportunity for each of our students to be prepared to transition to the next level.

–Sydnee Dickson, Utah's superintendent of public instruction

The final phase, which Dickson dubbed, the “new future” is analyzing how the state handled school options during the pandemic and what needs to be done to be prepared in case a similar scenario strikes again in the future. She said the state’s digital teaching and learning initiative may have given Utah students and teachers “a leg up” on the new teaching delivery system, but also understood there have been challenges along the way.

“We know we can do a better job supporting our parents in the future with digital tools,” she said, adding that the plan would look into what additional support educators would also need. “While we’ve had some advantages, we also know that many of our students have disengaged and we want to make sure we give every opportunity for each of our students to be prepared to transition to the next level.”

Herbert said Tuesday it's too early to know what the lasting effects of the pandemic will be; however, Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said the pandemic very well might change the nature of learning forever. She also echoed some of the concerns Dickson addressed.

"We cannot go into a future that doesn't recognize that not all of our students have a level playing field for learning and success," she said, on "Live Mic with Lee Lonsberry." "This has been a tough time for everyone. I know our teachers are particularly pulled from many ends. ... But moving forward, I see this greater appreciation for the role of our educators in our society — the dedication of them and the important role that our schools play in terms of setting our students up for success but also ensuring all students have access and opportunity."

Contributing: Lee Lonsberry, KSL NewsRadio

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