SALT LAKE CITY — Just as the Utah State Board of Education acted as a resource to public schools when the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to make a sudden pivot to distance learning in mid-March, several board members said Thursday it should serve a similar role as schools prepare for fall.
Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration and the State School Board are developing guidance to support schools as they navigate uncharted territory, but no one’s given the green light to reopen — yet.
“If you really heard what the governor said about schools opening in the fall, he said it is our intent for all schools to be open in the fall,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson.
As for state education leaders, “it is our role to support schools opening in the fall if they are able,” she said.
To that end, the state board discussed a draft of guidance it is developing to help schools safely and successfully reopen.
The guidelines are intended to serve as a “framework” established by state and local health authorities and state education officials, and “they (local school or charter boards) arrange the puzzle pieces” to best suit the needs of their school communities in consultation with local health authorities, Dickson said.
While some board members said they’d prefer the State School Board develop model policies and directives as some other states have done, board member Mark Marsh said the agency should be “more of a support group” as opposed to a mandating body.
“I think we have to remember that we as a state board really believe in local control and helping LEAs (local education agencies) and charter directors run their schools in a way that fits the community and the vision of what their constituents want. I think we need to allow that to happen,” said Marsh, who served 14 years on a local school board.
But others argued it was appropriate for the State School Board to lead out on best practices and policies.
Board member Scott L. Hansen said the Utah map looks like a patchwork quilt representing different levels of risk, according to the state’s COVID-19 risk assessment system.
“If we are in the ‘green’ phase, I think their operations should be fairly close no matter where they are in the state. I think the schools operating in ‘orange’ and ‘yellow,’ they should have the same basic things in place. We’ve got statewide guidance from the health department, so particularly the health and safety should look the same. Schools will have some choices. but I think that we can weigh in and give them good options ... to choose from,” Hansen said.
Board member Jennie Earl said it is important that families have options.
“Some parents, no matter what color code we’re in, will not feel comfortable sending their children next fall” due to a health issue in their homes or because they live with older relatives.
“So they’re going to want to have those options, possibly an online learning scenario,” Earl said.
Dickson said the school board and its staff will continue to make refinements to its guidance and bring the matter back at upcoming meetings.
Herbert, speaking earlier in the day at the weekly COVID-19 briefing, said parents will not want to send their children to school unless they receive assurances they are returning to a safe environment.
Herbert’s office is working with the State School Board, local school boards, superintendents and principals to develop those guidelines, he said.
“We’ll come up with a program to give confidence to the people that their children will be safe at school, and we have no choice. We need to make sure that happens. If not, we’re going to lose a generation of our young people who will have a less-than-stellar education,” Herbert said.
Protocols will include hand sanitizing stations, cleaning desks, social distancing and “maybe, the wearing of masks. That’s yet to be determined, but they’re in the process of working on that,” Herbert said.
As for students, teachers and staff who are medically fragile or more susceptible to infection, “all types of clientele will be addressed. Again, the protocol I’ve seen is quite lengthy and very much in detail.”
Herbert issued an executive order Wednesday that included guidance for resumption of school activities, including sports, under jurisdiction of district and school authorities.
It says hand sanitizer will need to be made available to faculty and students in each classroom and regular hand-washing routines will need to be instituted.
Moreover, faculty and staff will need to wear face coverings when social distancing is not possible.
“Updates regarding face coverings for students will be provided by local school and charter boards in consultation with health department officials,” the Utah Leads Together guidance states.