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Welcoming kids back to the classroom: School superintendent optimistic despite ongoing pandemic

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Grand County School District is preparing to start the 2021-2022 school year on Aug. 19, and has been working closely with health department officials to craft an opening plan with mitigations for COVID-19—a difficult task amid virus variants with unknown properties and shifting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. In spite of the uncertainties, Grand County School District Superintendent Taryn Kay is optimistic.

“I think it’s going to go better than most people think,” she told the Moab Sun News in a phone conversation. “We’ve got a lot of other mitigation strategies in place.”

She meant a lot of mitigation strategies other than a requirement that students wear face coverings, which will not be in place this year. Instead, the schools are using social distancing, diligent hand washing, and HEPA air filters in school buildings to mitigate COVID-19 risks. Each classroom will have a hand sanitizer dispenser, and seats will be assigned in buses and classrooms.

The CDC updated its guidelines for K-12 schools on Aug. 5, recommending that masks be worn by all students and staff in schools, regardless of vaccination status, in light of the prevalence of the Delta variant of the coronavirus. Delta is more contagious than previous variants and may cause more severe illness in unvaccinated people, according to the CDC. Utah state law passed this spring, however, precludes school districts from requiring masks.

“We’re constrained by a law which is on the books and hasn’t been challenged yet,” said Kay, though she expects that if COVID-19 cases rise in schools in Utah, there will be a change in policy.

Under the current law, a 30-day school mask mandate could be implemented by the local health department, provided it is then ratified by the county commission. Kay said she had the assurance of the health department and the commission that they would be supportive of what the district asked for on a mask mandate.

Bradon Bradford, director of the Southeast Utah Health Department, confirmed this.

“I am required to notify the county commission 24 hours before enacting any mandate,” said Bradford in an email to the Moab Sun News. “However, it is not my intent to spring a mandate on anyone. It would only come at a point where local conditions demanded it and all parties were in agreement that it would be a benefit.”

Once implemented, the 30-day mandate could be canceled or extended by the commission.

Though masks are not required in schools this year, the district is still encouraging those who aren’t vaccinated to wear masks, and supportive of any parents who wish to send their children to school wearing masks. However, teachers will not be expected to enforce mask-wearing for those kids whose parents want them to keep their mouths and noses covered.

“If the child takes their mask off, we’re not going to be the mask police,” said Kay. “I don’t want teachers stepping in as the parent—I want them teaching. If the parent is sending their child to school with a mask, that’s between the parent and the child.”

The reopening plan emphasizes tolerance for personal choices within the established rules.

“As always, GCSD has zero-tolerance for bullying. No bullying regarding mask-wearing (or not wearing a mask) will be tolerated,” reads the plan.

Vaccines

Vaccinations are also not required for students or staff, though Kay strongly encourages her staff to get vaccinated if possible.

“I am trying to encourage people to get vaccinated; I’m not requiring them to do so,” she said. “In looking at everything, I believe covid is preventable at this point… I think we ought to be doing everything we can to prevent it.”

“We have seen the benefits of this vaccine,” said Bradford. “It is safe and it is effective. We encourage anyone that still has questions about the vaccine to contact their health care provider.” He also encouraged everyone, not just members of the school district, to stay home if feeling ill, or to wear a mask if you must go out while feeling ill.

Vaccines are not available yet for children under 12, though Kay said she heard from the head of the state health department in a meeting with school superintendents that “all the information is pointing to, before the year’s end, that vaccine should be out and ready to roll.”

Bradford also said child vaccines should be approved by December of 2021.

Once those vaccines are available, Kay said, she would like to set up clinics at schools in which parents can accompany their children to receive the shots.

Testing and positive cases

Any sick student or staff member is asked to stay home. If a student is symptomatic at school, free COVID-19 testing will be administered by the school nurse. Kay said the school has an adequate supply of both rapid and PCR tests.

If there is a positive case in the school, that person will isolate for at least seven days or until symptoms subside. The school nurse and teachers will contact trace that person’s interactions. Anyone who was within six feet of the covid-positive person for 15 uninterrupted minutes, and is not vaccinated, will be tested for COVID-19. Negative test results will allow that student or staff member to remain in school.

Kay added that in a classroom where there has been a positive case, there may be a classroom-wide mask policy for two weeks after the case is identified.

Per the Utah legislature, schools will not close due to COVID-19. Instead, a threshold of 40 positive cases in a school, or 2% of a school’s population, whichever is larger, will trigger a “test-to-stay” policy, meaning all unvaccinated students and staff must be tested for covid.

Health benefits of in-person learning

There is still an option for any Grand County student to use “distance learning” or online learning, said Kay. However, she also said that in-person learning is crucial to students’ emotional and social well-being.

“What we learned last year was that distance learning doesn’t work well for very many kids; it certainly doesn’t work well for elementary students,” she said. Younger children need more supervision; in the absence of in-person school, parents have to devote a huge amount of time to help their kids get through lessons.

She pointed out that for adolescents, peer groups are one of the most important influences.

“Social interaction is critical for preadolescence and definitely adolescence,” she said, and also cited studies showing that students who missed a lot of in-person school time fell behind in learning.

Charter School

The Moab Charter School has also issued a reopening plan with COVID-19 mitigation policies, using many of the same strategies as the county district: rigorous hygiene and sanitation, physical distancing, and assigned seats. In addition, the Charter School is capping classes at 18 students and requiring masks in cases where physical distancing isn’t possible.

Students at a high risk of severe infection may be offered more social distance from their peers; parents may make requests for specific accommodations.

“Assemblies will be arranged on an individual basis so groups are less than 50 people. MCS will hold as many gatherings outdoors as possible,” reads the Charter School plan. Lunches and morning meetings will also be held outdoors when possible, and pickup and dropoff areas will be allowed as much space as possible for people to spread out.

The Charter School plan says staff will consult with health department officials in the event of a positive case at the school. In the event of the temporary closure of the school, Chromebooks will be issued to students to use for distance learning.

Bringing back kindness

“It seems to me that the world’s just gotten mean,” said Kay. “I want to bring back kindness—I really want to focus on the social and emotional wellness of our students and our staff.”

To help the school population cope with all the weight of the pandemic, political division, and other forces “beating us down,” as Kay put it, the upcoming school year is themed “Start from the Heart,” or could alternatively be called, Kay said, “Bringing back Kindness.” The approach is to encourage small actions of caring.

“Instead of big giant initiatives, we’re focusing on little self-care things,” said Kay. “What if you got 10 minutes extra sleep a night? How much extra sleep is that for a whole year? What if you ate one thing more nutritious each day? What if you walked 100 extra steps each day?”

It’s not just about self-care, but about community care as well.

“Say one more nice thing, smile one more time, be nice on social media,” said Kay. “Imagine if every single person in the world did that.”

Staying flexible

Bradford emphasized that the health department and the school district have, and continue to, work closely together on policy.

“The current plan has been a collaborative process that we feel will find a balance between public health and meeting the educational needs of students,” Bradford said. “We also recognize that the plan might need to be modified to respond to changes in local conditions.”

Kay said she was grateful to students and families for their adaptability.

“Kids are, by and large, tremendously resilient,” she said. “I’ve been so impressed with our kids, their families, the willingness of people to just trust us.”

Students and families may have to keep that resiliency and flexibility as the school year goes on.

“The plan is a living document and as we’re required to, or we see a need to make changes, then we will,” Kay said. “We don't know what’s going to happen. Nobody does.”