Schools in the Grand County school district will reopen for in-person learning on Tuesday, Sept. 8 with a host of additional hygiene measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among students, teachers and their families. However, as in districts across the country, concerns remain about how sending children back into schools will impact the health of communities during the pandemic.

While offering families the option of online schooling, the plan appears as close as possible to a normal school year: school buses will run; academic clubs, mentoring and sports will resume. Rather than an overhaul of how local schools function, policies and systems are being tweaked to accommodate proper public health policies like physical distancing.

School District Superintendent Taryn Kay said that the plan was created through conversations with district staff, parents and staff from the Southeast Utah Health Department and Moab Regional Hospital, as well as a state reopening template.

“No one really knows what’s going to happen in schools or in society in the next few months,” said Kay, “so we’re really viewing this as a living document, because we want to be able to be responsive and adaptive to whatever the next few months throw at us to meet the needs of students.”

Masks required for staff and students

One aspect of the plan that proved controversial among area parents was resolved by Utah Governor Gary Herbert, who announced that all schools would be required to have mandatory mask-wearing among staff and students in school buildings and on buses. Exemptions for those with health issues can be made.

At the school board meeting on July 15, Kay stressed that staff was planning how to ensure mask-wearing among students while also having designated mask-free time when students can safely physically distance, like recess.

"Masks are not a political issue; it's a safety issue," the superintendent said.

Families who do not want their children to wear masks will be offered remote learning options, Kay said.

Concerns about class size

“In my decades of experience, I have never been so overwhelmingly concerned about the health and safety of everyone connected with our community schools,” said Ryan Anderson in a conversation with the Moab Sun News. Anderson was a Grand County High School teacher for decades and now serves as vice-president of the Utah Education Association-Retired.

According to the Grand County School District plan, while general guidelines for hygiene and behavior are set by the District each teacher is expected to create a classroom COVID-19 plan to arrange their room to adequately physically distance students and plan a schedule to include breaks from instruction to allow students to take off masks outdoors.

Anderson said that the idea of teachers having the responsibility for creating vital health measures in addition to the pressures of teaching gives him nightmares.

“I can’t imagine what it must be like for educators who are going through the ‘novel’ process of unimaginably consequential problem-solving in real-time; especially with the pressures being exerted on them from every which way, top-down, bottom-up and all-around constantly,” he said.

Anna Sprout, a teacher at Grand County High School, attended the virtual meeting of the Grand County Council on July 21 to express her concerns about the reopening plan and urge community members to review the document.

“I’ve spent the past couple days reviewing the high school’s reopening plan,” said Sprout. “When compared to the CDC school reopening guidelines, Grand County High School’s plan is actually considered high risk,” she said, pointing to class sizes that would make it unlikely that teachers could properly physically distance students. Sprout said that her classroom could handle only 10 students per class with recommended distances of six feet. Her classroom will instead have around 20 students per class.

“There has been no news, or from my knowledge, consideration, of hybrid learning or remote learning during this pandemic coming into this next school year,” said Sprout.

Kay told the Moab Sun News that the possibility of a “hybrid” school plan that would combine some remote schooling with in-person attendance was considered early on. The idea behind such a model is that schools could reduce the number of students attending in-person classes at any one time, thus reducing crowded classrooms.

That model was ultimately dismissed in favor of a plan that allows strictly either option.

“We have a lot of parents who have to work,” said Kay, “and many of our students aren’t old enough to participate in online instruction without a parent guiding them.”

Kay did report that staff safety was discussed during the planning process, and that staff in high-risk categories will be offered some accommodations so that they can do their job safely.

Kay was realistic about the plan, noting that it was unlikely to please everyone.

“I think what we all hope is that there will be treatment options [for COVID-19] in the future and this will be short-term, just this year,” said Kay.

“We would just appreciate if the public will stick with us through the short term, and we’ll keep providing meals, schooling and other support and stand by families,” she said.

Moab Charter School issues plan

Moab Charter School classes will resume for in-person schooling only on Aug. 20, according to a separate reopening plan issued on July 22. The plan states that class size will be capped at 18 students per grade “to always maintain safe group sizes as determined by our local health department.” Staff and students will wear facial coverings as mandated by the State of Utah. The plan says that the use of outdoor learning spaces will be promoted.