SALT LAKE CITY — With the unorthodox high school graduation season behind them, local school boards are trained on the next major milestone for Utah public schools: reopening this fall.
From focus groups to parent surveys, school districts want to know what families and employees are thinking coming off months of distance learning necessitated by the spread of COVID-19.
Parents, students, educators and other employees have a lot of questions, and local school boards, even the Utah State Board of Education, don’t have all the answers because no one can predict the course of the pandemic.
Even as school leaders plan to resume in-person instruction next fall, cases of COVID-19 have spiked across the Beehive State recently, further complicating the work.
Parents need clarity, Jordan School Board member Tracy Miller noted at a recent meeting.
“I still get asked every day, ‘Are you going to open school this fall?’ ” Miller said.
Absent an order from Gov. Gary Herbert or state public health authorities that precludes the reopening of schools, Jordan District plans to offer two options this fall, in-person learning and online instruction, she said.
Miller said there needs to be a balance between safety and mental health.
“To me, they’re equally important,” Miller said.
“I want to provide as normal an experience as possible, but I also want to provide safety and we have to find the balance between those two things,” she said.
Personal hygiene, building sanitation, social distancing and the wearing of masks will all factor into the safe reopening of schools.
To that end, the Jordan School Board recently approved spending an estimated $821,215 for various safety measures, such as $166,320 to purchase two cloth masks for each students; $32,000 to obtain two cloth masks for each employee and $281,450 for hand sanitizer.
The board also approved spending an estimated $341,445 for hanging acrylic partitions for classrooms and “sneeze guards” for employee work stations.
The school district will spend Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act, funds for the items.
Aside from purchasing supplies to help ensure a safe opening of schools, many districts are surveying parents and employees to get a better handle on their preferences come fall, with some districts asking if parents plan to send their students to school or keep them home.
Jordan Superintendent Anthony Godfrey told the school board that he had conducted a dozen hourlong online meetings with various constituents to gather their input.
Other districts have sent digital surveys to parents to gauge how comfortable they feel about returning to in-classroom learning this fall and how they rank the importance of measures intended to help stem spread of disease such as the wearing of masks, regularly scheduled hand-washing, daily temperature checks, limits on classroom seating, staggering school drop-off and pick-up times and staggered lunch and recess periods.
Districts also want to know if parents have an expectation that they will be able to send their children to after-school programs.
Some school districts are also asking parents if the state authorities required all students who ride buses to wear a mask at all times whether their child would ride the bus.
School districts also want to know if parents prefer the option of wearing the masks and attending in-person instruction daily; students not wear masks but attend school on a modified schedule such as half days or every other day; distance learning similar to the digital learning that occurred during the spring term or pivot to home schooling.
A survey sent to parents in the Canyons School District drills down further to understand why parents don’t want to return to in-person learning, asking parents if their child prefers online learning, if there are physical or mental health concerns or other personal reasons.
The survey will help inform the school district’s COVID-19 Back-to-School Action Plan, which will be discussed during the Canyons board’s meeting on Tuesday night.