SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Education wants public schools to prepare plans for the return to school this fall ready to go by Aug. 1.
The board debated and discussed school reopening plan requirements and recommendations for more than four hours Thursday that are intended to become part of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s Utah Leads Together plan.
Given the detail of the documents, some board members wanted to postpone the work until another meeting but Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said the governor’s expectation is that the recommendations and requirements would be ready for the Utah Leads committee to consider Friday morning.
Board member Carol Lear said local school districts’ and charter school boards’ plans need to be in place no later than Aug. 1 so families can plan for the coming school year.
Many local boards do not meet in July, but Lear said this is so important that they should, whether in person or virtually.
“This needs to be posted. Parents can’t make a decision about day care or whether they send their child to school or not on August 10th,” she said.
Dickson agreed there were many reasons for the board to come to agreement on a template, but told the board it was a living document and it could be revisited as more information becomes available or conditions change.
“The more we wait, it’s going to be hard to meet that Aug. 1 deadline,” Dickson said.
The board pushed on and approved a document that spells out requirements and recommendations for a host of considerations such as social distancing, wearing of masks, riding school buses, cafeteria practices, hygiene practices, contact tracing and large-group gatherings.
For instance, to ride a school bus, staff and other passengers would be required to wear face masks. Bus seats and other high-touch surfaces would require regular cleaning and disinfection.
Meanwhile, districts could determine how to maximize physical distancing or come up with ways to protect drivers, such as placing Plexiglass around bus drivers’ seats or assigning seating to assist in contact tracing.
The requirement and recommendations are intended to mitigate risk in classroom settings. For example, the state would develop training and require schools to undergo the training. The plan includes many recommendations, but districts and charter school boards would have latitude to implement recommendations that work best in their particular school settings.
This is particularly important in a state that prizes local control, some board members argued.
It is also true that Utah schools and districts vary greatly so one size does not fit all. Some of Utah’s smallest schools have less than a dozen students while some of the state’s largest high schools have more than 3,000.
The state board recommends that staff wear face coverings when it is difficult to maintain physical distancing. Another recommendation is that students wear face coverings when engaged in contact longer than 15 minutes within six feet of others.
Another recommendation is to implement remote or other learning options for students whose families choose for them not to be in a classroom learning environment due to high-risk status or personal decision.
Another recommendation is to assign seats or small groups to support contact tracing.
Board member Scott Neilson expressed concern about recommendations being so proscriptive that teachers of very young students will shy away from any physical contact with students.
“I understand the importance of this, but a lot of students, especially our little ones, come to school and a lot don’t get that kind of interaction at home,” said Neilson, who is a school teacher.
“So I really want us to be careful about eliminating that precious relationship between our elementary teachers and the students that they interact with. If they come to school and teacher won’t come near me because of one reason or another, it can have a dramatic effect on some kids; not all kids, but on some kids. I think we need to be thinking about that as we move through this,” he said.
Most of the requirements are broad and give schools latitude to develop plans that best suit their needs.
For example, one requirement calls on districts and schools to ensure group gatherings such as assemblies, dances or recitals “are organized with health and safety principles and requirements in place and, as needed, in consultation with local health departments.”
Recommendations include limiting or canceling nonessential assemblies, recitals and dances, or rescheduling them as virtual gatherings broadcast to home rooms or holding multiple sessions of the same assembly with smaller groups.
Another recommendation suggests recording attendance and seating location of large gatherings to aid contact tracing.
The board agreed to most of the requirements and recommendations in the school reopening plan with a few amendments and directed staff to suggest that the executive branch replace the color-coded phases of the Utah Leads plan for public schools with the school reopening plan.
Dickson said while color codes have provided a common understanding for the public with respect to restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been confusing for schools as they develop plans to resume school this fall.
“First and foremost, we need to be clear that where we’re working to open schools in the fall for a variety of reasons, academic, social-emotional, family situations, etc., trying to get kids back to school, that’s paramount. If schools feel like they’re wavering on these colors and trying to figure out what color we’re in and waiting until the last minute, that’s really problematic,” she said.
The Utah Leads guidance for schools could be available as early as June 24, Dickson said.