With just over a month until students are slated to return to school, there is no shortage of concerns, question marks and opinions.
Hundreds of people attended school board meetings for Alpine and Provo City school district Tuesday, either in person or via online streaming, with fall school plans being the main point of discussion.
Both districts emphasized that they have worked for weeks on their plans and appreciated the extensive public input. Provo City School District Superintendent Keith Rittel said this was the toughest process he has dealt with in his many years of experience in school administration.
“It’s been the hardest summer I’ve ever had because we can’t nail down the target,” Rittel said. “It continues to move.”
Both districts presented plans following state guidelines to plan to return to face-to-face education in the fall as well as incorporate the mandate of Utah Governor Gary Herbert that all students wear masks when attending school.
The reality, however, is that the districts know the COVID-19 pandemic is a constantly changing situation and thus the plans have to be fluid.
Both Provo City and Alpine school districts repeatedly stated that they would be strictly following the directives from the state board of education, and state and local health departments.
To that end, the main plans that were presented focused on in-person school attendance with backup plans in place that include returning to full-time online learning or some sort of online/in-person hybrid model.
The current plans the school districts presented have been developed with the aid of public surveys of parents and teachers, as well as input from other school districts.
The results have been plans with a number of similarities, some of which include:
- Maximizing space in classrooms and having desks face forward to distance students as far as possible from each other.
- Acquiring masks, lanyards, hand sanitizer, face shields, desk dividers and cleaning supplies to minimize the risk of transmission of the virus.
- Giving parents options as far as sending their children to school in person, doing online learning or exploring options like home schooling.
- Limiting large gatherings of students by providing grab-and-go lunches and staggering bell schedules.
- Providing clear directions in the event a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19.
- Increasing flexibility for students who miss classes for health or other valid reasons.
Both Alpine and Provo City school district officials said they believe the best scenario would be to have all students in school every day, but clearly stated that that could only be done if health and safety guidelines could be met.
“Our main goals are for students to feel safe, feel connected with their peers and feel confident in the level of education they are receiving,” Alpine School District Assistant Superintendent Rhonda Bromley told the Alpine School District school board.
The polarizing nature of the pandemic, however, made it clear that many still harbor deep concerns about how the districts are proposing to move forward.
On one side of the spectrum, there were plenty of comments from teachers and parents concerned about added workloads, limited capability to impose safety measures (due to class sizes, for example) and the impact on individuals who are at a higher risk or have special needs.
Statements from others indicated distrust in state and local medical guidelines, fears of chemical exposure with cleaning practices and concerns that steps would do more damage than good since children have been shown to be less likely to either suffer severe reactions or spread the virus.
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest areas of contention was the mandate that students and faculty wear masks, although the districts currently have little choice in that regard since the mandate is from the state.
Many expressed their incredulity in the effectiveness and/or the feasibility of having students wear masks while at school, particularly for lengthy periods of time.
Both Alpine and Provo City school districts plan to continue to adjust and adapt their plans with the Utah County Health Department slated to evaluate the plans again in early August.