With the start of a new school year less than a month away for some of Utah’s public schools, most have at least a rough plan for what their returns will look like.
Given that most of the state is in the yellow or green risk phases of the state’s pandemic response, nearly all 41 public districts are planning on students returning to the classroom. Most are returning to a regular Monday to Friday schedule, and all are providing online options for those who need or choose to stay home.
Following a recent statewide mandate, both students and teachers will have to wear masks at school and on buses, unless they can stay 6 feet apart or have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing one. They’ll also have to learn new safety procedures, such as how to properly sanitize desks.
Districts are asking parents and teachers to check students daily for flu-like symptoms and require schools to have a quarantine room available for anyone who comes to school sick. If a student or teacher tests positive for the virus, they’ll have to stay home for two weeks, and schools will coordinate with their local health departments to track those who may have been exposed.
Some districts, however, are experimenting with slight variations of their own. Officials in the Jordan, Juab and Tooele districts, for example, are starting with a four-day week of in-person classes, using Friday mostly for online learning or to help students catch up with the week’s work. Cache District is cutting its school day short by 45 minutes, giving teachers time for open office hours and preparing lessons for in-person and online classes. And Grand County plans to host most of its classes outside.
Logan City is one of the only districts trying what it’s calling a “soft start,” a three-week period where students will return to school in two groups, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. When they aren't in the classroom, they’ll have online work they can do at home.
Logan Superintendent Frank Schofield said districts everywhere are being faced with impossible choices. And the decision his district made isn’t so much a solution to school closures, but a tradeoff between conflicting needs.
“We know that full online learning wasn't a highly successful option in the spring,” Schofield said. “So we're trying to really strike that middle ground between, we know we want students in school. At the same time, we want to be aware of the health and safety concerns that many of our parents and our staff have and find a way to address those adequately.”
Schofield said the three-week period will give students and teachers a chance to work in smaller groups and get familiar with the new safety standards. It will also allow the district to monitor the experience, as well as what’s working in other districts, before making a decision on the rest of the year.
As for Salt Lake City, it remains the only part of the state still in the orange, moderate risk phase of pandemic guidelines, which requires schools to stay closed. And while Gov. Gary Herbert said last week he would modify the guidelines to allow the district the option to reopen if it chooses, board members have not yet agreed to a plan, opting to postpone that decision until their next meeting Aug. 4.
The rest of the districts are required to finalize their plans by Aug. 1.
Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon