From implementing sanitization procedures to devising foot-traffic patterns, schools in Moab have been preparing nonstop for the 2020-21 academic year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Moab Charter School and the Grand County School District, which will open on Sept. 8, shared meticulous reopening plans and insights into how parents and students are adjusting.

After opening on Aug. 20, Moab Charter School Director Carrie Ann Smith expressed that she’s “overjoyed each day with how great things are going.”

“The kids are keeping their masks on without prompting. It’s amazing,” Smith said.

Both school systems have been in contact with state and local health departments to prepare for potential cases and outbreaks.

“I feel really good. We're excited and it's kind of like the anticipation of a holiday morning,” said Taryn Kay, superintendent for the GCSD. “I do think that once school starts, it will actually release the pressure, and everyone will relax and we can get rolling.”

Moab Charter School experiences a successful reopening

In the mornings at MCS, teachers line up to greet the school’s K-6 students as they arrive. Clad in masks, they head outside for Morning Circle, a long-held tradition at the charter school. While before the pandemic, students and staff would huddle close together, now the “circle” stretches across the entire schoolyard to accommodate physical distancing requirements.

“There's a little more space between us than what we’d like,” Smith said, “but this is the best we can do right now.”

Smith is embarking on her eighth year as the director of the free public charter school, which places extra emphasis on music and the arts. MCS has capped each grade at 18 students for this school year.

Unlike GCSD, which is offering remote options, MCS is only offering in-person instruction.

“I was not comfortable asking my teachers to do both in-person and online,” Smith elaborated. “I felt like it was twice as much work that we do. We just don’t have the capacity.”

When the Moab Charter School started school on Aug. 20, they followed a reopening plan approved by the MCS School Board on July 21.

“Our staff had a very heavy hand on how they wanted this year to look, and we’ve all helped each other make it happen,” said Smith.

All classes at MCS will be conducted outside whenever possible.

“We've got some outdoor classroom spaces, so we've set up our lunch space where the students can sit in different groups,” Smith added.

Families have been asked to conduct COVID-19 symptom checks before each school day, such as monitoring students’ temperatures. Anyone feeling sick is asked to stay home, and those who have displayed symptoms must be cleared by a medical professional before returning to school.

As the school year continues, Smith hopes that the community can stay vigilant while socializing safely.

“Our main concerns really aren't here at school,” she said. “If you contract COVID, it’s probably going to be outside of school, because that's where we do take our masks off and we are getting close.”

“If we can keep up the stamina of where we are now, I feel good,” Smith concluded. “Our families, our town and our kids need school. Our country needs our kids in school.”

Grand County Schools to open Sept. 8

The Grand County School District was one of the only school districts in Utah to push the start of school to after Labor Day, which was done for two reasons: to make sure Grand County cases stayed down and to hold professional development days for staff to prepare online and in-person instruction.

Since Aug. 26, GCSD teachers have undergone COVID-19 protocol training and learned new technologies for students enrolling remotely.

“I have been immensely impressed with all of the staff because it's a scary time,” said Kay, who was appointed as superintendent for the Grand County School District on July 1. “The field of education is unique during this pandemic in that we've had to change everything about what we do.”

Kay said that about 75% of students in the district will be returning to school in-person. This is slightly lower than other school districts in the state, which have 80% of students returning where in-person instruction is an option.

In an Aug. 28 interview with Laici Shumway, the executive director of the Moab Chamber of Commerce, Kay reported that approximately 180 students in the district have enrolled for online learning through the district, while between 70 and 100 students will be homeschooled outside of the school district’s programs.

The school does not receive funding from the state — $3,500 per student — for students who have opted for independent homeschooling.

“We wish that those people would have decided to stay with us during this time, but it’s their choice and we’re hoping that they come back to us when they feel like the time is right,” Kay commented. “The funding that we lose impacts educational opportunities for the whole community.”

The school district received around $220,000 in CARES Act funding, which is being used for PPE and new technologies needed to facilitate online learning, said Kay on Aug. 28. The school will provide masks, gloves, foggers, touchless paper towel dispensers and hand sanitizer.

“We’re stacking mitigation efforts on top of each other to create as safe an environment as possible,” she said in an interview with the Moab Sun News. “We're trying to follow science actively and do what the state and local health department advise because they’re the experts.”

Another change will be later start times for GCSD middle and high schools, which community members have wanted for years.

“That's the upside of COVID; you always have to look for the positives, even in pandemics,” Kay said. “Maybe this experimentation can transform education in really positive ways.”

“We’re ready. We are really good at what we do.”