SALT LAKE CITY — There are still a lot of unknowns, but local school boards are moving ahead with plans to reopen public schools this fall and have road maps in place by Aug. 1.
It won’t be business as usual, and among the handful of school districts that have released their strategies, many appear to be leaning toward a mix of in-classroom and digital learning. For parents who prefer not to send their children to in-school learning, districts are also planning options that are solely distance learning.
Granite School District’s framework reviewed by its school board Tuesday indicates a return to the classroom on a regular schedule, requiring teachers and employees to wear masks and strongly suggesting that students wear them, too. However, students who ride school buses will be required to wear masks, but that is a state requirement, said Granite District Superintendent Martin Bates.
Teachers would be asked to create a parallel track of distance learning to accommodate students who cannot attend school because of illness, or if their parents feel insecure about sending them to school, or if a return to distance learning becomes necessary.
This will mean additional work for teachers, admittedly, but it will provide “optimal flexibility in the event you had an outbreak in a particular class or grade level that you could move to distance learning,” said Assistant Superintendent Rick Anthony.
Bates noted that both the State School Board and at least one local school board entertained motions that would have required students to wear masks. The motions failed.
Granite School District Board of Education President Karyn Winder said the issue is challenging because employees are required to wear masks, which protects students, but if students don’t wear them teacher safety could be compromised.
“We do take the safety of not only students but of our staff seriously. I just wanted to make a note of that,” she said.
Students won’t be using water bottles, and school hygiene efforts will be enhanced, among other safety plans. More specific details are forthcoming, said district spokesman Ben Horsley.
Flexibility is key, administrators say.
“I think one of the key things here is, we’re going to be prepared for whatever. If we’re entirely online or entirely in person, we’re going to be able to do that. I think it’s more than just saying, ‘Oh, we can’t do school we’ve got to go online’ so we give kids a computer and send them home. We’ve got to have quality curriculum because we’ve got to keep moving kids forward,” said Salt Lake City School District interim Superintendent Larry Madden Tuesday afternoon.
Salt Lake School District hasn’t finalized its plans, but the board considered a schedule for elementary school children in which students would be divided into two cohorts that would have in-person instruction on alternating days except Wednesdays, when all students would receive “digital support.”
The district plans to work with families with multiple children so they can keep their children on the same schedules as much as possible. Junior high students would also attend school using a blended model.
High schoolers would be divided into four groups to reduce numbers of students in classrooms.
Students would take four classes in the first quarter of school, which means students and parents would have fewer classes to navigate. The school day would run from 7:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. with the classes 90 minutes long. There would be two lunch periods to reduce numbers of students in the cafeteria.
Wednesdays would be reserved for teacher preparation, meetings, professional learning communities, digital support of students, intervention time, and possibly career and technical courses.
Once the first quarter is completed, students would move to their B-day classes. The hope is the state will at some point return to a “green” response phase and a more typical school experience, but it all depends on the course of COVID-19.
The proposed plans are built upon a “yellow” phase on the color-coded Utah Leads Together plan, although Salt Lake City remains in the “orange” phase.
Many parents have indicated that they hope the importance of extracurricular activities is not lost in the crush to return to school under far-from-normal circumstances.
“I want our kids to have as normal a high school experience as possible. Seeing the rest of the state head towards competition, I’d hate to see Salt Lake City School District students miss out on that opportunity so I’m hoping we can look at that pretty carefully,” said Salt Lake City Board of Education President Melissa Ford.
Christopher Gesteland, director of the West High School network of schools, urged the board to provide guidance as soon as possible so families and school administrators can move ahead with more concrete plans.
“I know that we have the same interests at heart so I’m looking forward to this adventure. I think we have to be in a positive space. I think that our ongoing communication and collaboration is key to making that happen,” Gesteland said.
Board member Katherine Kennedy said the board’s and district administrators’ plans need to be guided by science, and if distance learning is a key pillar of the plans, the district must ensure students have access to electronic devices and internet connections so they can fully participate in school.
Elsewhere in Salt Lake County, school districts plan to take different approaches to the reopening of school.
The Jordan School District Board of Education, for instance, approved a plan to conduct in-person classes Monday through Thursday, reserving Friday for online classwork, small-group learning and additional teacher consultation.
“It’s not a day off school,” said Jordan board President Bryce Dunford. “It’s an accountable day. It will be a chance for teachers to work with students who have fallen behind. It will be a chance for small-group activities who need extra help.”
Jordan District families will also have the option of solely utilizing online instruction.