Park City School District will continue in-person classes amid COVID surge
4 schools in the district are eligible to move to remote learning due to the number of coronavirus cases, but school officials opt against pursuing that option
The Park Record
The Park City Board of Education voted on Friday not to move to remote learning for the upcoming week just one day after state leaders reinstated the option to transition to online classes amid a surge of COVID cases in Utah schools.
Gov. Spencer Cox, citing a public health emergency, announced the option on Thursday as the omicron variant rampages throughout Utah and overwhelms the state’s testing resource capacity.
The change reversed a law that prohibited schools from going fully remote and required them to have in-person classes at least four days a week. Now, school districts facing COVID outbreaks or administrators who deem “the risks related to in-person instruction temporarily (as outweighing) the value” may move classes online for up to one week starting Tuesday or Jan. 24.
But despite some schools in the Park City School District exceeding the test-to-stay threshold, which is now being used to determine if a school can move online, local school officials opted to continue in-person instruction.
As of Friday, Park City High School had 185 confirmed cases within the last two weeks, Treasure Mountain Junior High had 144 cases, Ecker Hill Middle School had 84 cases and Jeremy Ranch Elementary School had 43 cases.
During an emergency Park City School District Board of Education meeting on Friday, members discussed whether it was safer to keep kids and teachers in their buildings or move online. The decision, they said, was a complicated one.
While evaluating the importance of in-person learning, officials must also balance the health and safety of students and employees amid staffing shortages and a high number of absences.
Between Jan. 3 and Thursday, there were 280 overall absences at the secondary schools in the Park City School District, according to data shared during the meeting. School officials added that the elementary schools are also experiencing higher-than-normal absences but it’s not as dramatic.
Although it is unclear if the absences are for part of the day or the whole day, administrators did note the attendance rate is abnormally low.
Teachers have also been requesting substitutes more often, and administrators may not have enough bodies to fully cover classes.
Mike Tanner, the chief operating officer of the Park City School District, said it’s been common for individuals from various positions to fill in for other workers who are sick. School officials estimate that nearly 10% of their overall staff is out.
To help cover, teachers are giving up their planning periods, and employees working in the district office or other areas of the school are stepping into other roles. Many educators are working later into the night to make up for time they lost during the day, according to Jake Jobe, a teacher at Park City High School and the co-president of the Park City Education Association.
Beyond teachers, Tanner said that the custodial staff and bus drivers have been hit particularly hard. The district is even considering the purchase of UV lights for the buses to aid in cleaning.
“We’re working to keep the wheels on the bus,” he said. “Everyone is doing overtime.”
Though the South Summit and North Summit school districts haven’t been hit as hard, they are also facing challenges during the COVID surge. In the South Summit School District, Superintendent Greg Maughan said that staff in the district office have even obtained their food handler permits to assist food service workers in the cafeteria.
Although the district has experienced a rise in cases, the percentage was not high enough to consider moving online. Maughan said they’ve seen the highest number of cases in the elementary school.
Jobe acknowledged that the Board of Education is in a tough spot.
While he supports the idea of online learning because it could “reset” the case count with students and staff out, he also believes that kids learn best in the classroom.
“No one wants to teach remotely,” he said, adding that each grade level experiences different challenges with online learning.
But Jobe also emphasized the union’s concern with staffing shortages and exhausted teachers. He added that the district has been working to “patch the holes” created by the COVID surge and that he’s proud of everyone for stepping up and supporting each other.
State leaders on Thursday also announced they were rescinding the test-to-stay mandate, which requires students at schools with outbreaks to be tested regularly in order to attend class in person. Officials indicated that Utah’s testing resources are stretched thin and that the tests can be better utilized elsewhere.
Officials from both the Park City School District and the South Summit School District told The Park Record that this year has been challenging in a different way compared to the first two academic years during the pandemic. However, neither district has plans to change its mitigation strategy beyond enhanced cleaning.
“Last year, there were clear rules. This year, it’s more politics — and they’re all playing out on the school stage,” Tanner said, adding that the district will do what it can to safely keep kids in school.
As cases continue to rise, school administrators urge students, teachers and parents to remain flexible. They’re asking for individuals who feel sick to stay home and for the community to remain unified in their effort to stop the spread of COVID.
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