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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

With San Juan County Split Over Back To School Preferences, School District Creates Flexible Plan

San Juan County school board meeting.
Kate Groetzinger/ KUER News
Ron Nielson (center) presents the district’s reopening plan to the school board on July, 16.";

School will likely look very different in the northern and southern regions of San Juan County this fall, given a stark split in parental preferences. 

The San Juan School District surveyed parents to come up with a reopening plan, which was approved by the school board on Thursday. Around 60% of parents in the southern region of the county said they prefer online learning, while over 70% in the north said they want school to resume in-person. 

Superintendent Ron Nielson said he wasn’t surprised by the split, as the majority of confirmed COVID-19 cases in San Juan County have been on the Navajo Nation so far. 

“People have seen so much more sickness, hospitalization and even death [on the Navajo Nation] than [in the] Blanding and Monticello area,” Nielson said. “We haven’t seen those types of experiences up here yet.”

But that could change if there’s an outbreak in Monticello or Blanding, so the district built as much flexibility into its reopening plan as possible. Parents can choose at-home, in-person, or a hybrid model for their students at each school. 

The district will purchase curriculum from a third party for the at-home option, which can be completed either online or on paper, according to Nielson. The in-person option involves students returning to school, with safety measures — including a mandatory mask policy and social distancing — in place. 

The hybrid model is a bit more complicated. Teachers have already started developing that curriculum, Nielson said, and it will be available through an online learning system called Canvas. It will match up with what students are doing at school in-person, but can be accessed at home over the internet or delivered to students on a thumb drive. That makes it possible for a student to quarantine if he or she is exposed to COVID-19, and then return to school after two weeks. 

While presenting the plan to the school board, Neilson mentioned a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics that urges parents to send their students to school in-person, if possible. 

“I think there are still variables that are individualized, and that’s why parents have to make the final decision,” he said. “But there are a lot of social-emotional risks to these students, as well.” 

Lucille Cody represents part of the Navajo Nation called Montezuma Creek on the school board, and she said her biggest concern right now is safety. 

“You see all these ambulances going three, four times a day,” Cody said. “I’m sure they go all night, and then the helicopters fly in. It’s just so sad, and you’re just worried about who it is, what family member is being taken out.” 

But with limited internet access on the Navajo Nation, it’s harder for students there to learn online. The district has taken steps to improve connectivity by giving every student on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation a laptop and a hotspot that can connect to the internet through cell towers. But bandwidth is an issue, according to Neilson, who said the internet slows down when too many students are online at once. 

Still, Cody said she will probably choose the hybrid model for her two teenage foster children to keep them, and herself, safe.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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