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?”
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.”
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.”
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The Park City Board of Education is on track to place a bond on the ballot this fall to improve district facilities. The top priorities would be to put ninth grade in the high school, eighth grade in the middle school and to augment preschool offerings by expanding elementary schools.