Park City schools have remained open. Officials explain how — and why.
Data showing relative safety of schools guided strategy, Caplan says
Halfway through this one-of-a-kind school year, the Park City School District hasn’t once closed the doors of a school because of COVID-19, something that many wouldn’t have predicted in the run-up to schools reopening in August.
Park City Board of Education President Andrew Caplan called the fact that the district had stayed open — unique among Summit County’s three school systems — an “incredible success,” while acknowledging it was something of a surprise.
He lauded Superintendent Jill Gildea’s administrative leadership as well as the district’s commitment to using scientific data as a guidepost.
“The intention for the administration and the board was always one of, ‘Children belong in school,’” Caplan said Monday. “‘How do we get them back safely?’”
He touted the board’s willingness to invest upward of $2 million in COVID safety protocols, including infrastructure spending to increase sanitization efforts and air circulation systems. And he said the district’s past decisions to save rainy day funds allowed the flexibility to cover unforeseen COVID-related costs.
While Park City has avoided shutting its schools like it did last March, there have been more than 200 COVID cases districtwide and some 2,000 COVID-related absences. Health officials have indicated that schools have not been significant spreaders of COVID-19, with most cases contracted at home or when out in the community.
The Board of Education invested in policies aimed at keeping students in schools, but some parents and teachers have pushed the district to do more for COVID safety. One proposal is to adopt a hybrid learning model that would reduce the number of students in classrooms and allow for increased social distancing.
The board has so far resisted those and other measures, like preemptive shutdowns following the Thanksgiving and winter breaks.
Aaron Webb, the co-vice president of the Park City Education Association, said this school year has been exhausting for teachers, who have the additional workload of managing students learning remotely, in-person and under quarantine, in addition to the other stressors brought on by the pandemic.
“We all wanted to return to in-person learning, but felt frustrated and scared,” Webb wrote in an email to The Park Record. “… It was the most exhausting start to a school year that I’ve experienced in 16 years of teaching. I was haunted by so many questions — Would I be all right? Would my students get sick? Would I take something home to my own family? What if I lost a colleague?”
Webb praised his colleagues’ grace in adapting to teach in unfamiliar ways, and said he was buoyed when he returned to his elementary music classroom and felt the joy and enthusiasm coming from students.
Caplan acknowledged the fear that many felt as schools prepared to reopen — a fear that many teachers continue to express statewide and locally.
“Going into a job when you have a number of people in a room, in a confined space, regardless of what mitigation tactics are used, it’s totally fine and legitimate to be fearful,” he said. “I think what we tried to do is give our employees as much flexibility as possible (and) tried to work with PCEA to address concerns.”
He added that his own children have resumed learning with their classmates in person, something his family would not have done if he didn’t have faith in the safety of the school environment.
Caplan said he was convinced early on by data from Europe that school-based transmission was relatively less likely than in other community areas.
In the early days of the pandemic, many European elementary and middle schools remained open, Caplan said, and fears that they would become super-spreader sites were not borne out.
Caplan and Gildea indicated the district is prepared to once again pivot to remote learning if the situation warrants it, but made clear that was an outcome they’d prefer to avoid.
Gildea indicated that in-person learning allows educators the opportunity to help a student’s academic, social, emotional and behavioral well-being.
Caplan called it a “tragic” outcome when students were prevented from returning to school in person.
“Really where (schools) weren’t open is where they bowed to political pressure,” Caplan said. He added that the district had received its share of angry commentary.
“Look, it was a hard decision. We took a lot of flak,” Caplan said of reopening schools. “We got literally hundreds of emails, conversations with people who said that we were going to be killing kids, we were going to be killing teachers, we were reckless. All kinds of things.”
But Caplan indicated he was proud the district took the approach it did.
“Not too many people I run into in the grocery store that say, ‘I’m unhappy schools are open,’” Caplan said.
Gildea and Caplan said that the district worked to get students back in schools from almost the moment the district shut its doors last March, with Gildea recalling that instant pivot to remote learning as difficult, isolating and lonely for all involved.
She thanked the community for the support to pursue in-person learning, including students, parents, teachers and government officials.
“It takes community — caring about the benefit of all — to keep our schools open,” she wrote in an email to The Park Record.
She called in-person learning an essential component of a healthy and vibrant community, and indicated that students seemed to agree with that, as well.
“I’ve never heard so many high school students say, “I want to be in school” prior to this year!” Gildea said.
All three officials said the district would continue to evaluate the COVID conditions and respond as necessary, with Webb indicating that the union and the district were close to reaching a deal to secure teachers more time to prepare their lessons.
Caplan reflected on some of the hardest decisions the board has had to make during the pandemic.
“Do we open? That’s the biggest one,” he said. “Or do we bow to the pressure of the people who are saying we’re going to kill everyone? Do we bow to the fear of the unknown or do we trust the data and the science? We knew, for the most part, children aren’t getting very sick from this. Let’s do our best, check every box we can do to make schools safe and clear. And if it doesn’t work, we’ll close it.”
Gildea said the district experienced many firsts this year, such as conducting mass student testing, and is now preparing mass-vaccination clinics.
“Our hopes for the winter, spring and remainder of the school year is to provide equitable opportunity and access to high quality instruction whether that is in person, alternate schedule or remotely,” Gildea wrote.
She added that her team has already begun preparing the transition back to fully in-person learning for the 2021/2022 school year.
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