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In Some Rural Utah Schools, 'Cowboy Up' Culture Clashes With COVID Concerns

Photo of students in masks taking a test.
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Small, rural districts in Utah may have an easier time keeping students socially distant in the classroom compared to their larger counterparts, but they're also challenged with addressing small communities' attitudes towards toughing out health concerns.

Utah has long struggled with large class sizes, which can be difficult for teachers to manage and students to stay engaged. But during the coronavirus pandemic, where keeping people apart remains the primary method of preventing the disease from spreading, schools face even greater challenges ensuring students and teachers can stay safely distanced.

It’s a problem more easily addressed by those in the state’s smaller, rural districts — six of which have less than 1,000 students total. But having fewer students doesn’t help them tackle a less visible obstacle: long-held cultural values that run counter to health and safety guidelines experts say are needed to fight the virus.

“There's lots of people telling me this is total overkill,” said Bruce Northcott, superintendent of the Daggett School District — the smallest in the state. “I mean, this is a cowboy town, right? So there’s the whole concept of ‘cowboy up,’ men don't cry, etc.” 

Northcott said the lunchroom at one elementary school can only seat 32 students when social distancing is factored in. But with fewer than 200 students in the entire district, students can pretty easily be accommodated in two sittings. Half of the kids would go to recess while the other half goes to lunch, then they would swap. 

Some classes at the district’s only high school could also have as little as five students, he said. 

But given Daggett’s culture, Northcott said parents have often brought their students to school even if they're sick, and illnesses can spread quickly in such a small community. Outbreaks of strep throat and the flu last year kept about a quarter of the district’s student population out of school.

And even though Daggett, like all districts in the state, is continuing to provide online options for those who want them, Northcott doesn’t anticipate many going for them. 

“What I'm hearing from my community is that we want to be in school, we didn't like the online thing,” he said. “But if you don't want to do what we're asking you to do, don't come to school. I hate to be kind of hard line, but I'll be forced into that.”

In other areas though, there are signs the cultural tide is beginning to turn. 

“It's not a comfortable subject for people,” said Wayne County Superintendent Randy Shelley, who anticipates challenges in his district, too. “People don't like the idea [of wearing masks], but they’re coming around.”

Shelley said for some it’s a political issue, while others just don’t see the need. Wayne County only recently announced its first positive coronavirus case at the end of July. He said he’s tried to explain to parents that the district is still required to follow the health guidelines given to them, so if they want their kids in school, they’ll have to do the same.

That’s helped change the minds of some, he said, and others have become more receptive after state officials announced masks would be required in schools. 

For Northcott, the changes he’s trying to instill in Daggett County go well beyond the current pandemic. 

“This is not just a COVID issue,” he said. “Our sanitizing plan will probably never go back to where we were. Don't come to school sick with anything that is communicable — that's the message we're sending.”

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

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