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SALT LAKE CITY — Box Elder County School District launched the school year on an optimistic, perhaps overly ambitious schedule of in-person learning five days a week.
If in-classroom teaching was all teachers had to do, that might have been manageable. But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, navigating their workloads has become increasingly difficult.
Teachers have also been assisting students who are quarantined due to exposure to COVID-19, are isolated because they are ill or symptomatic with the virus, or are staying home because they are otherwise ill and their schools have asked them not to attend if they are sick.
"Everybody's just stressed and then when you throw the additional work stress on, it just adds up," said Superintendent Steve Carlsen.
This, of course, is not unique to Box Elder County. Schools across Utah have adopted revised schedules, with some setting aside one day a week for remote learning or employing hybrid schedules where only half of the student body is the school at one time.
Some districts conduct remote learning on Fridays, which helps educators manage their work demands and have time to offer students more individualized help. It also enables students involved in extracurricular activities not to miss classes when they travel to games, matches and competitions.
After a lot of debate, discussion and literally writing "pros" and "cons" on a board, Box Elder County School District administrators settled on keeping five days of in-school instruction but starting the school day an hour later, Carlsen said.
While that sounds like a fairly simple solution, a one-hour change requires many adjustments in the schools' daily schedules, such pushing back breakfasts and lunch times, shifting bus schedules and rescheduling small-group work done with children who need help with reading or other coursework.
For students who have long bus rides to and from school, pushing back the start of the school day by an hour was welcome news, Carlsen said.
Everybody's just stressed and then when you throw the additional work stress on, it just adds up.
–Steve Carlsen, Box Elder Superintendent
"We've actually had a lot of people call and say 'This is awesome. My kid won't have to get up at 5:45 (a.m.) to hit the bus at seven or 6:15, or something like that,'" Carlsen said.
The schedule change will also enable sleep-deprived teens to get another hour of rest. This wasn't the reason for the schedule change, but is a bonus nonetheless, Carlsen said.
They tend to stay up later at night and "it takes them a while to get going in the morning. So we thought, well, here's a way to help with that."
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention's 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 43% of American high school students get less than six hours of sleep on school nights.
Research indicates sleep deprivation impacts adolescent brain development and contributes to other negative consequences such as lack of attention to learning tasks, poor retention of information taught, low grades, increased risk of auto accidents, increased disciplinary problems, impaired judgment, increased suicidal thinking, increased levels of anxiety and depression, decreased motivation and increased substance abuse.
The schedule change is not without complications, particularly for working parents who plan their work schedules around the start of their children's school day, which, depending on their grade level, is between 7:40 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.
"We know this will cause families difficulties with child care, and we are very sorry for those challenges. We feel strongly we have to take these measures to ensure our excellent teaching staff's health and effectiveness," according to Carlsen's announcement on the school district website.
School dismissal times will remain the same.
The schedule change has been approved by the local school board and the school district will need to seek an attendance waiver from the Utah State Board of Education.
The new schedule will go into effect Oct. 29 and will be regularly evaluated.
"Once the numbers have subsided, we will return to our full schedule," Carlsen wrote.