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Utah Schools Inch Closer To Reopening Plans

Photo of small chairs on a small table in a classroom
blanscape via iStock
Utah public schools have been closed for two and a half months.

State and local leaders are working towards issuing guidelines for how Utah’s K-12 public school districts and charters can reopen in the fall. 

According to the latest version of the state’s plan for reopening, officials are planning to bring students back next year. 

At a meeting Thursday, The Utah State Board of Education released a first draft of its recommendations for how to make that happen, assuming the state’s risk level remains in yellow. If the state shifts back to orange, schools would close again. In green, strict health and safety guidelines would no longer be needed. 

The draft, which covers everything from playgrounds and outdoor spaces to lunch and bus protocols, offers general guidelines and poses questions for each district and charter to consider. 

To comply with social distancing, for example, schools may have to designate entrances and exits for different student cohorts or install plastic partitions in areas where social distancing isn’t possible. 

The plan does not, however, provide specific directions. 

State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson stressed that while overarching guidelines will come from the state and local health departments, the ultimate handling of reopenings will fall to districts and charters themselves. 

“We’re trying to push this notion that there are so many possibilities,” Dickson said. “[Districts and charters] know their context best. They know students, parents.” 

She said social distancing guidelines would be handed down by the state health department. Local health departments would then outline the best ways to meet those standards in a school setting, but districts would have to figure out how to make it work. 

For example, if existing classrooms couldn’t allow for 6 feet of distance between desks, a school may have to look at staggered schedules or having teachers and students wear masks. 

In a press conference Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert said he is currently reviewing proposals as to what kind of guidelines the state will issue. 

“There's going to be protocols in place for hand sanitizers, washing down of desks, some social distancing, maybe the wearing of masks,” Herbert said. 

Various districts have also begun to release preliminary plans of their own. The Salt Lake City School District, using guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said some possible scenarios might involve a return to school via a hybrid model, combining in-person instruction with remote student learning. It’s also preparing for additional school dismissals, which would again shift the entire district online.

Dr. Amy Hunt, chief academic officer of the Park City School District, said her district created six task force groups focused on various aspects of reopening. The groups are working on several plans for various health risk levels, including how to tackle potential learning loss and mental health concerns that may have arisen during the pandemic. She said the district is hoping to have its plans finalized by July. 

In mid-March, Herbert closed public schools to students for the remainder of the year, though they have continued to serve meals. The state also canceled standardized tests and asked that students not receive failing grades.

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

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