Debate continues over whether to keep Park City schools open during holiday season
The Park City School District has been relatively protected from the rising tide of COVID-19 cases sweeping across the state, with data published Thursday indicating there were 17 active cases among 4,800 students.
The district, however, is not an island of calm amid the storm. A group of teachers has been advocating for measures that they say would protect their health, as maintaining social distance is impossible in some classrooms.
That initiative has been echoed and expanded at the state level, with the Utah Education Association earlier this month calling on school districts to move to remote learning from Thanksgiving through winter break.
At Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, a representative of the Park City Education Association said that the union had surveyed 37 secondary school teachers and that 29 of them supported moving to remote learning.
But Park City officials have said they wouldn’t pursue that course unless case counts warrant it. As of Thursday, there were seven active cases at the high school. State guidelines recommend moving to remote learning when there are 15 cases in one school, or three in any classroom.
While the survey appeared to show teachers in secondary schools overwhelmingly support a move to remote learning during the holiday season, the union did not vocally advocate for that at the meeting.
And teachers aren’t the only stakeholders the board is trying to accommodate. District officials have said that their goal is to teach students in schools, which they have said benefits students for social and educational reasons and provides more equitable access to resources.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Board President Andrew Caplan indicated many students and parents want schools to remain open.
“I have here literally a stack of 30 emails of people begging us to keep school open, most of which are parents and families of Treasure (Mountain Junior High) and the high school,” Caplan said.
He added that the board must balance the interests of students, parents, teachers and administrators in deciding how to navigate the pandemic.
“We’re responsible to the community and the taxpayers who are overwhelmingly telling us that they want to remain in school,” Caplan said.
He also referenced a petition with signatures from roughly 65 students who want schools to remain open.
Jonathan Mount, the high school senior who circulated the petition and wrote the accompanying letter to the board, spoke of the challenges of remote learning and the benefits of continuing to meet in person for school.
“A lot of people have a lot of their lives invested in school extracurriculars: friends, the resources, counselors, things like that,” Mount said in an interview. “When that’s completely cut off and the only tunnel is a glitchy Zoom call, it’s really, really tough to have those resources cut off from you.”
He added that the remote learning period at the end of the last school year exacerbated inequalities.
He said friends of his who had anxiety or depression struggled more than he did during the remote learning period at the end of the last school year. Online learning was especially challenging for his peers who had to shoulder more responsibility at home by taking care of younger siblings.
“Those who were able to continue to do well during the quarantine were, for the most part, those who were already excelling,” Mount wrote in the letter to the board.
He said he and others collected the signatures in seven hours, approaching students during lunch and spreading the message on Snapchat the night before. He said it wasn’t hard to find supporters among students who recalled the period of remote learning at the end of last school year.
“Many (students) were anxious, depressed, or bored. Many just quit getting out of bed. Needless to say, they did not bother to log into canvas to do their schoolwork,” he wrote of last year’s experience.
Mount said he had heard that officials thought students supported a move to remote learning and his intention was to show that a sizable portion of the student body wanted to remain in school. Around 1,250 students attend the high school and a significant portion have opted to take some or all of their classes online, officials have said. Mount sought signatures from students who continue to attend school in person.
Teachers have also expressed dissatisfaction with teaching remote classes, describing an inability to connect with some students and saying it’s easier for some to “fall through the cracks.”
But some teachers claim moving to remote learning is a safety issue as they expect cases to skyrocket in schools after families convene for the holidays.
The Park City Education Association, however, did not appear to advocate for moving to remote learning at the Board of Education meeting Tuesday.
Reading from a prepared statement, Vice-President Aaron Webb touted the steps the union had taken to increase communication among members, including establishing committees and office hours-style meetings for members to air concerns. He stressed the importance of working collaboratively with the administration to achieve common goals.
“We are not engaged in divisive actions or dialogue,” Webb’s statement says. “Lasting change comes through collective effort with a broad group of stakeholders. We were only able to negotiate a new licensed professional agreement and compensation contract with the entire team — administrators, school board members, teachers, and the community.”
The Board of Education passed the compensation contract that Webb referenced earlier this year, the largest ever package of its size. At the time, board members said the raise was jeopardized by a group of teachers advocating against in-person learning.
“Either way, this decision should be made and will be made with the whole team — PCEA, staff, the school board, administrators, the health department, and the community,” Webb’s statement said.
A small group of teachers dissatisfied with PCEA’s advocacy for COVID-related measures recently started a new union at the high school. A representative told the board that their goal was to preserve in-person learning by creating a safer work environment to prevent future shutdowns. That union has advocated for moving to a staggered, hybrid schedule with only half of the student body in school each day. They claim that fewer students in classes would allow for social distancing and allow teachers to be more effective.
Board of Education statements in the past have indicated that the community wants to see in-person learning continue and that it is a minority of teachers who are vocally advocating for remote learning. Caplan said that it would be impossible for an organization the size of the Park City School District to have unanimity of opinion among its 700 employees.
“We’re here representing families that want their kids in school. That’s our only job here — and to keep the schools open,” Caplan said. “So that’s where we come from. We’re doing that through an equity lens. We recognize that not every child has the same experience. We recognize that not every family has the ability to help their children at 7:30 in the morning or during the day. We get it all. We’re going to continue to try to work with everyone, all the stakeholders, to make sure that the kids can stay in school and that the educators can stay safe.”
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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.