| ParkRecord.com

Park City School District publishes COVID-19 case numbers

The Park City School District last week released more details about how it will handle cases of COVID-19, including a commitment to publish the number of confirmed active cases in its schools each week and to communicate with parents whenever there is a confirmed case in their child’s classroom.

A posting on the district’s website includes a link to a spreadsheet that the district said will be updated each Friday. There may be a lag in the data, as confirmed positive cases will only be reported once people who have been in close contact with an infected person have been notified. The numbers will be updated once each week.

The first published results show two active cases — one each at Park City High School and Treasure Mountain Junior High School. A student involved in a third case, which Superintendent Jill Gildea said was at an elementary school, has recovered, and that data is not included in the spreadsheet.

Along with the commitment to publishing case numbers, the district sent a reminder that health data is private, and urged members of the school community not to use the information to denigrate others.

“Please refrain from speculating, shaming or blaming when a positive case at a school is identified,” a district letter states. “Despite all efforts, there is no ‘Covid-Free’ Zone. All are working diligently to maintain safety and cleanliness protocols to isolate and mitigate the spread of this virus.”

Many in the community were concerned with schools reopening, with some teachers decrying what they said was the lack of room to social distance. But Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough said there haven’t been as many cases tied to schools as he had anticipated, and that rumors that there are more cases than have been reported are not true.

“We believe our numbers, we believe our numbers are low, we believe they’re accurate. We believe it’s important for the public to see those,” Bullough said Tuesday.

He added that he had been in talks with state health officials, who he said plan to launch a statewide data dashboard with COVID-19 case information from school districts in coming days.

The district indicated it would cease publishing its case numbers once the effort is taken over by the state agency.

Bullough added that there have been no cases associated with North Summit or South Summit schools. One student in South Summit tested positive, he said, but had been attending school remotely.

In its announcement last week, the Park City School District also linked to a hundred-page state manual for guiding school districts’ responses to the novel coronavirus, last updated in early August. It includes many key definitions and protocols for how to respond to a positive test in a school environment, and is the document that Gildea said is guiding the district’s pandemic response.

When a member of the school community is diagnosed with COVID-19 — including students, teachers or other staff members — that triggers a protocol for everyone who is a “close contact” of that person to quarantine, as well.

In the Park City School District, Bullough said the average number of close contacts per case has been between 10 and 20. He indicated that those sitting in desks near the diagnosed student would quarantine, but those who sit farther away in the same classroom would not be required to do so.

The Utah Department of Health guidelines define a close contact as someone who has been within 6 feet of the person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes up to two days before that person got sick or tested positive.

A person who has tested positive for COVID-19 may return to school once they have been fever-free for 24 hours without medicine and it has been at least 10 days since they first had symptoms or tested positive, according to the guidelines.

If a student was sitting next to someone in school who was diagnosed with COVID-19, that student would have to quarantine for 14 days, according to state guidelines. The members of that student’s family would not have to quarantine unless that student also tested positive.

Bullough said there is enough testing to sufficiently test close contacts of confirmed cases.

Officials have indicated that schools might have to go back to fully remote learning if case numbers prompt the county to revert to an “orange” level of pandemic response. Barring that, Bullough said that there are clear metrics for a school or classroom to quarantine: A classroom would move to remote learning if three or more students tested positive, while an entire school would do so if there were 15 positive cases, or cases in 10% of the student body, whichever amount is smaller.

The district stressed its increased sanitization protocols, including cleaning areas where students who have tested positive for COVID-19 have spent a considerable amount of time, like classrooms. Officials also reiterated the importance of preventive measures.

“We appreciate everyone doing their part to take care of themselves and others by wearing masks, physically distancing, practicing good hand hygiene, and staying home when ill,” the district stated in its online posting. “By continuing to reinforce these practices, we will be able to keep our schools open and provide a healthy and safe learning environment for all.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the district would notify parents whenever there is a positive case in their child’s school. Superintendent Jill Gildea clarified that parents will be notified only when there is a positive case in their child’s classroom or if there is spread of COVID-19 in a school beyond an isolated case.

Deputies respond after Instagram threat, determined not to be legitimate, references school shooting at Ecker Hill

A 13-year-old boy is facing legal consequences for an Instagram post that referenced “shooting up” Ecker Hill Middle School on Friday, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office said.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, deputies were notified about the post at around 9:30 p.m. Thursday evening. A school administrator, as well as multiple parents and students, contacted deputies.

Deputies located the teen responsible for the post early Friday morning, the Sheriff’s Office said. The teen told deputies that the post was meant as a joke. Deputies determined he did not have the means to carry out a shooting.

The teen was referred to 3rd District Juvenile Court for the offense of threats of violence, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

“We remind all parents to regularly monitor their children’s social media platforms, teach them about proper and acceptable use of social media, and to report any threats of violence, bullying or other criminal activity,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a prepared statement.

School board approves funding for teacher salary increases

The Park City Board of Education met Wednesday afternoon as the sounds of honking horns and ringing cowbells carried in from a demonstration taking place just outside. At the board’s budget hearing, the elected officials approved an amended budget — without incident or in-depth discussion — that factors in additional funding from the state than what was initially anticipated.

The board’s budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, passed in June, accounted for an expected reduction in state funding of up to 10% due to the coronavirus pandemic. Shortly after the board approved the budget for the year, however, Utah’s Legislature approved its own budget with a slight increase in school funding. That move kept state funding for the district roughly in line with the previous year. Thus, the board found itself having slashed $3 million from its budget it could now restore, and it did so Wednesday.

The amended budget restores funding for programs that were eliminated in the earlier budget and allocated money for projected future costs related to COVID-19 safety measures. It also set aside approximately $2.43 million for teacher compensation, which the board anticipates will be accepted by the Park City Education Association, the teachers’ union. The compensation package was approved following a bumpy round of negotiations that the board at one point halted when it anticipated the state funding reduction.

The lack of discussion about the decision was also notable because of a letter the elected officials sent to teachers Monday. In that letter, which was signed by all five members, the board said if individual teachers continued to voice their concerns with the district’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, it could weaken the community’s confidence in the district and jeopardize the additional funding for teacher salaries. Several demonstrators outside the meeting, who were there to protest the district’s coronavirus response, mentioned that letter as the reason they showed up.

Crowd of demonstrators criticizes school district’s handling of coronavirus

More than 100 teachers, parents, students and community members met outside the Park City School District offices before and during the Board of Education’s meeting Wednesday to voice their displeasure with the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most wearing red in a show of solidarity, they stood along Kearns Boulevard, signs in hand, demanding the district do more to keep teachers, staff and students safe.

The demonstrators said they were chiefly concerned about the lack of social distancing in classrooms and hallways. The protest was held amid growing tensions regarding the steps the district implemented to slow the spread COVID-19 as schools reopened earlier in the month. The Park City Education Association, which represents teachers, has criticized the efforts as inadequate, while district officials have defended the measures.

Sarah Peters, a parent of two students in the district and another who recently graduated, said she wanted to show support for the teachers, many of whom she’s known for nearly two decades. She said after the coronavirus shut down campuses in March, she waited patiently to see what the district planned for the return to school in August. When the time came, she said, she was disappointed.

“Social distancing is one of the major ways to combat coronavirus,” she said. “So if we don’t social distance, none of the rest matters. All of the money the district put into all the air purification, the hand-washing stations, the rest — all of that is great, but if you can’t lower the class size, then why bother?”

Quinn G. holds a two-sided homemade sign reading “Protect Our Teachers” and “Prioritize Public Health” during a demonstration outside of the Park City School District offices Wednesday afternoon.
Tanzi Propst/Park Record

Peters said she has family in Wisconsin whose district has students on split schedules, two days on and three days off, and she doesn’t understand why Park City schools didn’t do something similar. Allowing 90% of students to opt into on-campus learning, she said, makes distancing impossible.

Jen Minton, who resigned from her job as a teacher’s aide Monday, said she was baffled at what she said called conflicting messages coming from the district, in particular Superintendent Jill Gildea.

“Dr. Gildea points to the return to playing football at 25% capacity,” Minton said. “That’s an outdoor facility, and you’re going to cap attendance at 25%, but you expect our students and teachers to go into a classroom for hours at 100% capacity?”

‘The hardest decision I’ve ever had to make’

Minton served as a teacher’s aide at a Park City elementary school for the past nine years. She resigned, she said, because after just two days of instruction, she felt the district was unprepared to handle the pandemic.

“There are too many kids in those classrooms,” she said. “There are too many. And that is not OK for teachers and staff.”

Minton said the district is losing teachers and paraprofessionals like her because they don’t feel safe or heard.

“At our school alone we were down seven staff members the day before school started,” she said. “The district is looking for substitutes to be warm bodies in classrooms and they are not finding them.”

A school bus heads east on Kearns Boulevard, passing the Park City School District offices where teachers, parents, students, concerned community members and others gather with signs during a demonstration Wednesday afternoon.
Tanzi Propst/Park Record

As an aide, Minton said she did not return to campus until the first day of school. When she did, she said, she was shocked at the class sizes and inability to properly distance. She said she gave the situation a couple of days to improve but ultimately could not stomach the risk.

“I thought perhaps when I saw the kids, it would change. I thought seeing them would recharge me and I could push through. Because that’s why we’re all here, for the students,” she said. “But what I saw was students who looked like deer caught in headlights and teachers who are so weighed down and so burdened by this.”

Minton said the anxiety she saw in the students and the teachers led her to conclude it was time for her to go.

“It’s the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” she said. “I’m struggling with it. I am so sad. I love my job. I know they need me and I am so torn up inside to have to leave. And I am angry that I’ve been forced into this position.”

Tempers flare inside boardroom

Frustration over the handling of the pandemic was not limited to outside the district offices. Several parents spoke during the public comment portion of the school board meeting, including one who had harsh words for President Andrew Caplan.

Julie Paas, who had a high school student in the district, said she took exception to Caplan’s statement in an earlier Park Record article that more people in the community have died from car accidents or ski accidents since the pandemic started than have from the virus itself.

“I am quite distressed,” Paas said. “Your comment is at best willfully ignorant and at worst abjectly disrespectful. I think it warrants your resignation.”

Paas said equating a global pandemic to car accidents was tone deaf and warranted an apology to the community as well as his departure.

“It shows a disrespect for people who have legitimate concerns about this disease,” she said.

Caplan, in turn, took exception to Paas’ comments.

“No I am not going to apologize, because my statement was one of fact,” he said.

As he and Paas repeatedly talked over each other, Caplan went on to accuse her of reading more into his comment than was intended and “assuming bad intent.” He then said he and the rest of the board deserve respect for the work they’ve done to address the threat of COVID-19 in schools.

“What you are looking at here are five parents who volunteer their time to represent the community when it comes to public education,” he said of the board. “Five of us gave up countless hours this summer and we continue to give up countless hours because of the commitment we made to this community.

“We make mistakes. I make a lot of them. But when people accuse us of putting our own children in harm’s way, or putting our employees in harm’s way, it is rude and it is disrespectful.”

Another parent, Shannon Schemmer, urged the district to be more flexible with individual teachers and their concerns over safety accommodations. She pointed to the resignations of several teachers and paraprofessionals since the school year started and said the district needs to stop the exodus.

“When we don’t recognize a valued educator’s anxiety and concerns we let them walk out the door,” she said. “Please don’t let any more go out the door.”

Tensions mount between teachers, Park City Board of Education over reopening concerns

Tension continued to build between the Park City Board of Education and many of the district’s teachers as the first full week of classes began, with the Park City Education Association arguing for greater safety measures in schools and the elected officials expressing frustration with the way teachers have aired their concerns.

The teachers union directed a letter to Superintendent Dr. Jill Gildea and the board last week outlining — in great detail — its concerns over the district’s reopening plans and pleading with district leadership to “prioritize the safety of your staff as well as students.”

In the letter, obtained by The Park Record, the association’s leadership says it conducted a survey of members in which 65% of respondents indicated they would only feel safe returning to in-person learning if class sizes were reduced. No amount of other mitigating measures, the letter said, will make a difference if teachers and students cannot properly distance.

Among the other issues outlined in the letter are what the association characterizes as miscommunication and lack of guidance regarding distance learning as well as a lack of personal protective equipment. Union leadership said teachers were leaving campus at lunch on the first day of classes Thursday to purchase their own protective equipment. They also said demands from administration differ at the four elementary campuses, adding to the confusion.

“Educators are afraid for their health and the health of their loved ones,” the letter states. “We are said to be essential employees and are the only group of such workers asked to be sequestered in a room with 25-plus people for several hours a day, every day.”

A third stop on a hand washing circuit instructs fifth grade students to wash their fingers and knuckles while thinking of a fun way to remember the states and their capitals on Wednesday, August 19, 2020.
Tanzi Propst/Park Record

The union also expressed concern over a shortage of substitute teachers.

Julie Hooker, co-president of the association, said the conditions are already taking a toll on teachers just a few days into the school year. Three teachers at Park City High School have resigned, she said, as have a number of paraprofessionals.

“PCEA is asking that educators’ fears and concerns be acknowledged and more so, addressed,” the letter states. “Telling educators not to worry is not helpful. Providing sanitation materials is not enough. Show us that you take our concerns seriously. Make the difficult decisions necessary to protect all your employees and students.”

The association’s leadership also took exception to board President Andrew Caplan’s remarks in a Park Record article indicating the association has told the board that teachers are “happy coming back.”

“We never used the term ‘happy,’” the letter states. “We are concerned. We are pensive. We are anxious. For months we have expressed our concerns about the types of learning being offered; the communication with staff and the community; and overall safety.”

The letter concludes by urging the district to reduce class sizes. It also asked officials to delay the start of school if necessary.

“We understand it is inconvenient, but what you are asking schools and staff to do is untenable.”

Board of Education responds

In a letter to teachers Monday, the five-member school board collectively responded to teacher concerns, acknowledging not every teacher agrees with how the return to school has been handled. The board members thanked teachers for their efforts so far and said they are committed to keeping teachers and students safe; the district has spent $2 million so far on personal protective equipment, they said, a number that will likely grow.

“We recognize there will be challenges with both in-person and remote learning during this semester and throughout the year,” states the board’s letter, which The Park Record obtained. “Please know that we respect and appreciate the magnitude of this time and our collective decisions to teach and support all children with learning, socialization, nutrition and a safe learning environment.”

The board’s letter goes on to discourage teachers from sharing their frustrations via “email and social media campaigns” and asks them to refrain from bringing individual concerns to the board. If teachers have concerns, the elected officials wrote, they should reach out to their union representatives or the “relevant administration.”

“Form letter email and social media campaigns of any sort are not only inappropriate and unprofessional but are also ineffective when they go against what association leadership represents to us publicly and privately,” the board’s letter states.

Teachers and staff at McPolin Elementary have spent time preparing by taping out designated desk areas in classrooms, walk flow in hallways and prepackaging school supplies.
Tanzi Propst/Park Record

The letter also addresses teacher salary increases up for approval at the board’s Wednesday meeting, an “enormous financial commitment from the community” the board says has been put in jeopardy.

“Please understand that the actions of a few are jeopardizing our ability to deliver on this much warranted salary increase,” the letter states. “When a group of your peers continuously undermine the district through print, radio and social media because they are not getting their way please understand it hurts us all in the eyes of the community. You as a group need to collectively make a decision on which direction to take. We must all recognize that the children and their education comes first.”

The board letter suggests some teachers are “more focused on the politics and rhetoric from (Utah Education Association) and (National Education Association) than the education of the children of our community.”

The letter concludes by saying there is no business more essential than education.

“We cannot state enough how appreciative we are that you have decided to continue to honor your commitment to the community’s children,” it states.

Gildea pleased with return so far

In an email to The Park Record, Gildea said the district has been preparing to reopen for the school year since before campuses were shut down in March.

“The start of school has been incredible,” she said. “We have welcomed back our students, launched a remote option, and our educators are working to ensure that no matter the learning mode (in person, blended, or remote), that the students will be successful.”

Gildea said lunch periods at the district’s elementary schools — with the exception of social distancing and masks — resemble those during any other year. She also pointed to the return of sports at the high school, including football at Dozier Field limited to 25% seating capacity. Gildea stressed that the district’s teachers and staff are “essential to a successful and positive school year.”

She said the district’s reopening plan and COVID preparedness guide are in line with existing best practices, and she acknowledged that there will likely be a need for multiple learning modalities “through the 20/21 school year and beyond.”

“We will continue to work together,” she said. “But the focus is, and should be, on our staff, students and creating the conditions for health, safety and success.”

Some teachers fear returning to full classes, say social distancing is impossible

The first day of school in Park City is Thursday and teachers are looking forward to it with the jitters and anxiety associated with a new school year.

But nine teachers who spoke to The Park Record say another emotion is taking precedence as their return to the classroom nears.

“I’m afraid,” said Kevin Fober, a history teacher at Park City High School.

“Teachers are very anxious,” said Perrine Voisin, a French immersion teacher at Trailside Elementary School.

“I’m a little concerned about (the first day),” said Ed Mulick, a biology teacher at PCHS.

“I’m afraid for myself, for my family, for my community,” said Josh Goldberg, a social studies teacher at PCHS. “That’s kind of where I am right now.”

The group of teachers, mostly from the high school but joined by educators at other levels, all said they disagreed with the Park City School District’s plan to begin the school year with full-time, in-person learning.

The problem, they said, is that it is impossible to create the recommended 6 feet of distance between students while having most of the student body in schools at one time.

“I’d like to see the number of students in the classroom reduced so we can socially distance in our classrooms,” said Megan McKenna, a science teacher at the high school. “There are lots of other models out there. Several other districts adopted hybrid models that cut the number of students in half.”

Initial plans from the district allowed parents to choose among an in-person option, a fully online option and a hybrid of the two. Park City Superintendent Jill Gildea has said that 90% of students opted for in-person learning, while around 150 students district-wide have a schedule that could be considered a hybrid model. District officials estimate around 4,700 students will be enrolled this year.

Board of Education President Andrew Caplan agreed that social distancing is impossible in many school situations, but said that mirrors other aspects of everyday life. The board and administrators, he said, are doing the best they can in an imperfect situation.

“There’s no perfect answer,” he said. “I think the plan the district came up with is one that provides equitable education. We provide a choice where, if people aren’t feeling comfortable, students can stay home. If they are, they can come to school.”

Caplan said an ad-hoc hybrid model that allows students to choose their own schedule and come to school a few days a week would be logistically impossible. He added that the district is ready to pivot to an online/in-person hybrid model if coronavirus case numbers warrant it, but that returning to school in person and full time offers many benefits for students and families.

He said the district is trying to reduce the risk, but that eliminating it is impossible. He added that education remains an essential service for reasons beyond learning, including safety and nutrition.

The board is set to approve $1.8 million in COVID-related expenses at a budget hearing next week, including spending for sanitization equipment, facilities upgrades and personal protective equipment.

But that might be little comfort for the teachers on the front lines who face the prospect of being inside a closed room with different classes of up to 30 young people at a time who cannot adequately space themselves apart.

The nine teachers who spoke on the record see a district-wide hybrid or blended model as a potential path forward. One example is a system in which one cohort of students comes to school on Mondays and Tuesdays and another comes in on Thursdays and Fridays.

Mulick, a 30-year district veteran, said bringing all of the students back into the buildings is “almost like a recipe for disaster.”

“The overall strategy to contain the spread of the virus, to me, feels like it’s kind of a rash plan to put all of the kids into this one building,” he said. “I would feel much more comfortable having a modified schedule that could meet the needs of students, the needs of parents and the needs of teachers.”

County health officials and district administrators have said that kind of model poses challenges for contact tracing and could in fact spread the virus faster. While it might enable adequate social distancing, an outbreak could be harder to contain as students might be contacting more people in their days outside of school.

The Summit County Health Department clarified in a letter last week that it does not have oversight authority regarding the district’s reopening plans, though it has worked closely with the superintendent.

To a person, the teachers said that they were excited to return to school and see their students again after finishing the last school year remotely.

But most said they fear a full return to school may cause an outbreak that would require schools to shut down again.

Many teachers were reluctant to speak on the record, expressing unease about how voicing their objections may impact their employment.

Some initially declined to be interviewed, then reconsidered, while others offered unvarnished opinions only to later ask that their words and names not be printed. Many of the teachers who felt comfortable speaking have worked in the district for years.

Most teachers were careful to note that they spoke only for themselves. Some said that they knew of other teachers who supported the full in-person return. Caplan said that teachers’ representatives have consistently reported that they were on board with a full, in-person return to schools.

“What you’re hearing is a very loud minority,” Caplan said. “… If leadership said they’re not happy coming back, that’s a different story. Every time we talk with them, they reiterate they’re happy coming back.”

Julie Hooker, the co-president of the Park City Education Association, the union that represents Park City teachers, said “happy is not the word I would choose to describe our feelings at this time.”

“Pensive, anxious, and concerned better describe how our members are feeling right now,” she wrote in a message to The Park Record. “… Our children cannot learn if they are not in a safe environment.”

Several teachers said a survey circulated by the association earlier this summer revealed deep apprehension about the district’s plans. The association did not comment on that survey.

Caplan said that schools provide sanctuaries for students, places where they can learn and get meals and possibly some security from unsafe home environments. And for parents, he said, having kids out of school for half the week would present an impossible choice between working to support the family or staying home to watch the kids and risk losing their jobs.

He added that there have been more deaths in Summit County this year from ski accidents and car crashes than from the coronavirus.

“At some point our kids have to go back to school,” he said. “… What’s the right answer? Is it to stay home for a whole other year?”

Gaylynn Mooney is a longtime chemistry teacher at the high school. She, like many other teachers, said social distancing is impossible in her classroom.

Her son is at high risk for COVID-19, she said, and she and her husband are the primary caretakers of her 94-year-old mother-in-law, who lives across the street from her.

She wears a mask at home and sleeps in a separate bedroom and uses a separate bathroom in an effort to keep her family safe.

She said she empathizes with the district leaders who have to balance the risks of reopening.

“I do have empathy but I do also have frustration because I think that we have moved away from following science,” she said. “When I back up and look at the big picture, I feel like I’m part of something crazy because we’re in a pandemic and we’re just moving forward. In my opinion, we don’t know enough about this virus and its long-term effects, and it make me feel like I’m part of something crazy.”

Fober, the high school history teacher, has decades of teaching and coaching experience. He said the conflicts of returning to school are tearing him up.

“It’s horrific because, for 35 years, I’ve looked to the first day of school with the same kind of giddiness that a second-grader feels or a kindergartner feels,” he said. “I’ve felt that for 35 years and I don’t feel it. It’s robbed me of something that I can’t get back.”

Christian Center’s Back 2 School Basics returns to help students in need

Pete Stoughton, director of programs at the Christian Center of Park City and a father, knows how important it is to make sure children in Park City are equipped to handle this school year no matter what shape it takes.

To that end, the Christian Center’s Back 2 School Basics fundraiser returns this month for its ninth consecutive year to help children in need and their families shop for school clothes and supplies. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the event will be three days long this year, rather than one, taking place Aug. 17-19 at Outlets Park City. Registration is online for both attendees and volunteers at ccofpc.org/. Families whose children are registered in the Park City School District and qualify for free or reduced lunch can register to schedule a time to participate.

This year, more than ever, Park City needs the community to pitch in and help, Stoughton said. Because of Park City’s reliance on the tourism sector, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, many families have experienced job losses or are living on reduced paychecks. To sponsor a child, people can donate money online at the Christian Center’s website. Children and their families are then given a $100 gift card to go on a shopping spree for back-to-school clothing and supplies at the outlets.

Stoughton explained that, when students have the opportunity to make their own decisions in what they wear and are given the ability to develop their own style, it can reduce social stigmas and other barriers that can make school more difficult.

“What makes (Back 2 School Basics) a little unique in comparison to other programs … is that, rather than students being given the clothes that we picked or that we have available, the students and the parents are able to pick their own items.” Stoughton said. “The emphasis of that is really giving parents the dignity and the autonomy to guide those decisions.”

Due to the coronavirus, the Christian Center is implementing a number of safety precautions, Stoughton said. For one, there will not be more than 10 families shopping at a time. Also, the number of volunteers present at any time will be limited. Masks are required.

The success of the event hinges on the community’s participation no matter what the circumstances are. Stoughton said the Christian Center is relying on Parkites to step up and donate money, as well as needed supplies (such as backpacks, books, pencils and pens) to supplement the items the students will purchase at the outlets.

“Typically it’s been super successful,” Stoughton said. “We’ve been able to register and provide for as many students that have been identified as low income or free and reduced lunch here in the Park City School District.”

The Christian Center is also accepting donations of personal protective equipment to add to students’ school supplies.

“It’s critically important that our kids are clothed appropriately and prepared for whatever element of school that is going to come back,” Stoughton said. “It takes a community to make sure that everyone has access to the same resources.”

A learning curve for PC Tots after reopening

PC Tots, a nonprofit early learning and care center for Park City children, closed its doors this past spring in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. After months of planning and preparation — and the hiring of a new executive director — it reopened July 1, with some noticeable changes.

Rachel Barnett, who took over as executive director in late May, said adjusting to new safety protocols has been just that — an adjustment.

“We’re all learning the way we need to adapt and proceed and I feel like we’re doing well with it,” she said. “And the kids seem to be just really happy to be back with their friends.”

Being back with their friends isn’t quite like it was before, of course. Barnett said that, prior to COVID-19, kids could freely intermingle, but now they are kept within their own class. Barnett said PC Tots installed 6-foot partition walls to help keep the kids from wandering into other groups.

“We also had to implement increased daily cleaning,” Barnett said. And then, of course, there are the masks.”

Knox Olson, 3, reaches for a paper towel after washing his hands at an in-classroom sink at PC Tots Tuesday morning.
Tanzi Propst/Park Record

One big question as the school year draws nearer has been how well young children, like kindergartners, will acclimate to wearing a mask for most of the day. At PC Tots, the children are even younger.

When PC Tots first reopened July 1, the kids didn’t do so well with the masks.

“We even had one little girl try to bury hers in the playground,” Barnett said.

Health directives in Utah first called for kids 2 years and older to wear masks, then adjusted it to 3 and older. Barnett, who has a behavioral health background, said enforcement has been tricky.

“These are children we are talking about, and they’re not going to comply just because there is an order,” she said. “It’s a behavioral health thing we are trying to cultivate and it will take time. We have to applaud every win.”

With toddlers, Barnett said, a win might be keeping the mask on all morning.

“We’ll applaud that, and when they are able to keep the mask on all day, even better,” she said. “We can’t do this by traumatizing kids. It has to be positive. They have to want to do it.”

With that in mind, teachers at PC Tots have included mask wearing into lesson plans and games. Some of the older kids did a masquerade lesson that made mask wearing fun. Another class, Barnett said, did an essential jobs dress-up day, which meant the kids dressed up as doctors and firefighters and, of course, wore masks. Still another teacher had a superheroes-themed activity that allowed kids to wear, for example, Spiderman masks, a way to further create a positive association with mask wearing.

“I can’t speak highly enough of my staff and teachers,” Barnett said. “They are brilliant women and you can see their passion for what they do. They’ve been so helpful with all the adjustments we’ve had to make and so good at helping the kids adjust in a way that builds resilience and teaches them to cope with change.”

Barnett said those ideas — how to be resilient and cope with change — have been a frequent focus this summer. Barnett said anecdotally, she is hopeful the children who are aging out of PC Tots and heading to kindergarten will be well prepared to cope with school life in the age of COVID-19.

“We really hope what we’ve been doing here will help them in school and help them to adapt to things now and in the future.”

Park City schools face COVID costs, remote learning changes for 2021

The weeks leading up to the start of the school year are ordinarily busy for Park City School District staffers as they try to hone in on how many students will enroll in school, accomplish last-minute hiring and fine-tune operations.

This year, add to that list a $4.5 million budget amendment, compensation contract negotiations and a global pandemic, and administrators are looking at an unprecedented mix.

“I don’t have numbers today — boy, I’d love to have numbers today,” said Todd Hauber, the Park City School District business administrator. He was speaking Monday, 10 days before the first day of school, about the breakdown of students who have opted for in-person learning, fully remote learning, or a combination of the two. “It really changes minute by minute,” he added.

Park City Superintendent Jill Gildea offered that more than 90% of students are planning to return to in-person learning Aug. 20, while approximately 40-50 students in each grade are opting for a fully online learning experience and about 150 students total have opted for a hybrid model.

Friday was the deadline for parents to choose which learning mode worked best for their student, a decision that would be binding for the first grading period.

Hauber said the district is still “beating the bushes” for students who haven’t yet enrolled, a process that normally continues through Labor Day but this year is complicated because it affects how the district will allocate staff resources for the different modes of learning.

Gildea said the district is lucky to have a high ratio of students to adult staffers who may be able to lead smaller, break-out sessions to lower class sizes. She added that the district is examining options to aid social distancing at the high school, which is the district’s largest facility.

Those options include a rotation schedule or an in-person/online hybrid model and are being considered for the first quarter of the school year.

A hybrid online/in-person schedule offers epidemiological challenges, Gildea said, because it increases the number of contacts a student has during the week. In the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, the district has said it will work with the county Health Department to perform contact tracing to identify students who should quarantine or monitor for symptoms.

When a student is not at school for half the week, the number of people that student contacts may increase, and the job will be harder for district employees than if the student had been sitting in their assigned seat each day.

Teachers have expressed mixed feelings about returning to the classroom, balancing possibly life-threatening health risks with the desire to reconnect with students.

Gildea reported that the number of teachers who have expressed interest in remote learning has roughly matched the anticipated need for online-only staffing, which she called “great news.”

The Park City Board of Education is scheduled to meet Aug. 25 to revise its budget after cutting more than $3 million in response to anticipated state cuts that did not materialize.

According to budget documents released by the district, board members will deliberate a $4.5 million budget amendment that includes a $2.4 million compensation increase earmarked for teachers and staff and $1.8 million in COVID-related expenses, among other items.

The district plans to pay for these increases with $1.4 million in property tax revenue increases that come from new growth and increased value in the district, $2.8 million in restored state funding, $350,000 in federal coronavirus-related funding and $60,000 in local grants.

The board had previously cut off negotiations with the teacher’s union and announced it would freeze salaries as a result of the pandemic, indicating at the time it wanted to pay teachers more but could not afford to do so.

The details of the compensation increase are being negotiated and have not been publicly released and, like other changes to the budget, must be ratified by the board.

Hauber said much of the $1.8 million in COVID-related expenses are initial costs like purchasing equipment and that the cost burden will likely be lower to maintain the programs compared to starting them. The district won’t have to buy a large batch of new cameras to facilitate distance learning in 2022, for example, though it will have to replace and repair them eventually.

“Getting people trained to teach in the online environment, that’s a huge upfront cost,” he said, estimated at $330,000. “But once they’re there, you just have continuing education to remain fully competent in new skills.”

Other big-ticket items in the $1.8 million COVID-related expenditures include $400,000 for a camera system for 100 classrooms to record lessons for students to access remotely, $270,000 for personal protective equipment, $233,000 to help make summer school free and $210,000 to support students with special education needs, according to a breakdown provided by the district.

Park City’s teachers are conflicted over reopening, union leader says

Teachers are concerned heading into the new school year, frustrated by a lack of clarity about what to expect in their classrooms and scared for their health and that of their students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But many are also looking forward to reuniting with their students, a leader of the Park City teacher’s union said.

“Teachers are running the gamut of emotions and that’s because it is completely unknown. Teachers are planners. Teachers plan out literally their entire year, how they’re going to deliver their lessons, the sequencing, all of that. And they simply cannot plan right now,” said Julie Hooker, a Park City High School English teacher and co-president of the Park City Education Association. “… This is my 20th year and I have never felt more ‘first day’ jitters and the first day is almost a month away.”

School districts around the state are required to submit plans to the Utah State Board of Education by the end of the week stating how they’re going to safely repopulate schools.

Hooker said that teachers have served on committees tasked with crafting those plans in Park City but that there are still many unknowns heading into the school year, which is scheduled to start Aug. 20.

“It’s going to look very different,” she said. “This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

For one thing, the workload on teachers is nearly doubled by having to support online learning as well as teaching students in the classroom, she said. And since those virtual demands are mostly new, teachers don’t have the same curriculum they’ve honed over years to rely on.

Hooker said teachers will likely have to spend a significant amount of time in the first quarter of the year implementing sanitization and mask-wearing protocols, especially with the youngest learners, taking time away from education.

Teachers are already facing the increased pressure of having to help students overcome a learning deficit caused by emergency remote learning accommodations put in place as the pandemic hit this spring. That interruption may have left many students behind, officials have said.

Hooker also questioned whether it is the right move to go back to in-person learning as it’s become clear that younger people can spread the disease asymptomatically, just as adults can.

Hooker said six of her adult friends have recently been diagnosed with COVID-19 and in each case, they caught it from their child.

“That’s how it’s going to spread,” Hooker said, talking about socializing among teens. “And our kids, they’re not going to social distance — they can’t. Their frontal lobes aren’t fully developed.”

Some at-risk teachers are hoping to work remotely, she said, as are some who share a home with people who are deemed high-risk.

The Park City School District has offered three options for students this year: fully remote, online learning; an in-person schedule that resembles normal schooling; and a hybrid of the two.

Parents have a deadline of Aug. 7 to select an option for their student’s first quarter or trimester of learning. Until enrollment numbers come in, it’s hard for teachers to know what their responsibilities will be and challenging for the district to know how many teachers to hire.

And there are concerns about how to maintain a safe environment in different rooms. Most classrooms have sinks for students to wash their hands, but some do not. Hooker said she teaches in a classroom without windows, leading to questions about ventilation.

She said that she has full faith in the administration and district to protect teachers and students, but the situation is without clear answers and fraught with difficulty.

“So yes, we’re afraid,” she said. “I’m afraid of getting the virus. I’m afraid that I could spread it. My mother is 86 years old. I’m afraid that I could pass it on to an immunocompromised child.”

She said teachers are also concerned with enforcing a mask mandate in their classrooms, but more concerned with student behavior outside of the classroom.

“Older kids, they’re going to walk out for lunch, rip their mask off, get in their car and drive to Alberto’s for lunch,” she said. “We can manage what happens in our classroom. It’s impossible to manage what happens outside.”

One teacher she knows who had COVID-19 in April still is too short of breath to go on hikes, she said, and there is fear among teachers regarding unknown consequences of the disease.

Still, she said, “teachers teach,” and are finding creative solutions.

Park City teachers aren’t the only ones adapting. One North Summit kindergarten teacher, Camellia Robbins, said she is excited to get back to school and interact with students. She bought a special soap dispenser this summer that dispenses soap in the shape of Mickey Mouse in the hopes of making hand-washing enticing to her young students.

“While things will be different and there will be challenges, I believe we can make this year successful and fun,” Robbins wrote in an email to The Park Record.

Hooker said other teachers are considering things like playing a song to mark the time for hand-washing and mask-adjusting.

Many teachers entered the profession to connect with kids, Hooker said, and many said this spring that missing their students was the hardest part of adjusting to the pandemic.

But the consequences of returning are real and sobering, Hooker said, and teachers are weighing them alongside a desire to return.

“As soon as COVID hit, I updated all of my will information,” Hooker said. “I think one of the things that really, really, really scares … us is knowing that there are go-to docs that they can send out saying a student or a teacher or a staff member died. I mean, I understand that on an intellectual level. On an emotional level, to know that we are prepared for that scenario, that’s tough.”