Friday the 13th is normally a day that is considered to be unlucky. In 2020, March 13 manifested that belief as then-Governor Gary Herbert announced the soft closure of all schools in the state of Utah for two weeks amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many saw the closure as a short-term issue and many did not expect what would follow. That soft closure then turned into a move to completely remote learning to finish off the 2019-2020 school year.
It led to a wild ride of drive-thru graduations, the cancellation of extracurricular activities, and the loss of spring sports among other things. To call it a challenging year for all involved would be an understatement.
Shane Farnsworth — who’s serving as the Alpine School District’s interim superintendent before officially assuming the position on July 1 — saw those challenges firsthand as an assistant superintendent for the district. He was appointed as the next superintendent in October and is looking to pave a way forward for the largest school district in the state.
When reflecting on the year that followed the soft closure, Farnsworth said he was most pleased with how remarkable the employees in the district have been and how the students adapted to the changing times.
“From teachers to administrators, to support staff, bus drivers, everyone has just been so committed to helping students work through this, process through this, and learn at their highest level,” Farnsworth said.
It was a tough transition for educators to move to a remote learning model following the soft closure, but Farnsworth said that the district never lost sight of the important role that face-to-face learning plays for the educators and students.
“Our commitment in the fall was to return to learn and have as many students as possible face to face, but to provide for the needs of all students,” Farnsworth said. “That took a little bit of effort on our part to do so, it was not seen as the best move by some and some were critical. Our approach was, we know that students need to be face to face, we don’t know if students will significantly spread the virus. We went with what we knew.”
Knowing the importance of students learning in person, the district was prepared to work through the bumps in the road to make it possible. Some schools did have to transition between hybrid schedules due to outbreaks and adjustments were made for secondary schools where COVID-19 spread more easily than in elementary schools.
Farnsworth said it has been a challenge, but he feels the district has done what is right and the data shows that COVID-19 does not spread as easily in schools.
The term Farnsworth used for this learning process was rigid flexibility. With things changing all of the time, adjustments being made, and modifications coming into play, the guiding principle remained the need to have students in front of teachers as much as possible to maximize learning and well-being for all.
“We’ve had some learning loss, we know it’s real, and we are anxious to assess that and try to create measures so we can intervene,” Farnsworth said. “We need to know how significant the problem is and then address it. At the elementary level that is going to focus on basic reading, writing and math skills to make sure our students are having the fundamental growth that they need to in those areas. Then at the secondary level, we typically measure that by failure rates. Are students completing their course and particularly for those in ninth grade and above that have credit remediation needs, our teachers have spent additional time in helping students make up course work.”
One of the major focuses that came with this return to learning in person was the safety of students and teachers.
On behalf of the teachers, the district worked hard to see that teachers were among the first groups to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the state. That prioritization started with personal protective equipment, masks and other resources from the beginning of the school year. The vaccine was just the next step in that safety aspect.
Educators being prioritized for the vaccine was seen to be a validation of their work and importance. They take the risks every day to ensure students can learn in the classroom, and it did lead to a morale boost going into the final stretch of the 2020-21 school year. There is now a greater confidence that teachers can feel safe in their space as more students return to learning in the classroom.
As for students, Farnsworth complimented them on their compliance with the mask mandate. He found it as an outward manifestation of students wanting to go to school in person and stay in classrooms.
“I think in our day and age, resiliency is necessary,” Farnsworth said. “That’s one of the things that we need to learn as adults and students need to learn as well, that I can work through challenging things. I can take uncertainties, deal with them, and still move forward in positive and productive ways.”
When asked about the biggest takeaway from the year for Farnsworth, he was quick to bring up two things.
First was the importance and need for a student and teacher connection, adding that students thrive in a connected relationship with a teacher. The second aspect was that employees shined through the difficult times and adversity.
“When students are not able to be with their teachers in the classroom and learning in a collaborative-driven model, learning suffers and the well-being of students suffers,” Farnsworth said. “Teachers got into this business for the relationships and to have to communicate that through a screen is challenging. For teacher well-being, for teacher efficacy, they need those students face-to-face. Then the resilient nature of our educators is a second takeaway. They can deal with challenging external circumstances, situations and game-changing events, pivoting to a new reality on a day’s notice. It’s a credit to them, who they are as individuals, their character and their commitment to student learning.”
As the district moves forward from the COVID-19 pandemic, the next steps include finishing strong, maintaining the health of students and teachers, and maximizing learning.
The biggest thing for the district to establish following the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Farnsworth, is to focus fundamentally on student learning. This will involve assessing learning loss in students during the summer, making plans to address it, and getting students back to the level they are expected to be at.
This won’t just happen overnight either, but it will be a process over the next year as students have fewer absences and more time to learn.
The light at the end of the tunnel is there for educators and it is approaching. The feeling is that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is in the rearview mirror as teachers look forward to what is next. While it is not over yet, Farnsworth is hopeful that brighter days are ahead.
“I would say that there is great hope,” Farnsworth said. “I think our teachers are hopeful that they can finish this year strong and I think they are anxious to get back to the new normal in the fall. I think they’re looking forward to opportunities to get back to their practice, get back to their work with limited restrictions, and opportunities to do what they have been asked to do. I think it’s a feeling of hope and optimism.”
After getting through the past year, one question that stood out is, could the district feasibly take on anything after the COVID-19 pandemic?
Farnsworth chuckled and said the families of the Alpine School District could take on the apocalypse and be supported by the district.
“We’re really here to support families, they are what is fundamental and we exist to support the learning and education of their students,” Farnsworth said. “Together with the families of this district, the communities, the students, and the wonderful employees of the Alpine School District, we can take on hard things.”