Gov. Herbert announces schools will remain shut down through end of the academic year

Trailside Elementary School.
Jeff Dempsey/Park Record

Schools will remain closed for the remainder of the academic year.

Gov. Gary Herbert made the announcement Tuesday afternoon as the COVID-19 pandemic continues its fatal sweep across Utah.

“In order for us to continue to slow the spread and to get back on our feet socially and economically, this is not the time to have our schools back open,” Herbert said in a press conference.

Schools were initially shut down for two weeks starting March 16, an order that was later extended to May 1. Now, it will last through at least the early summer months.

State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said she was looking for creative solutions to address the achievement gaps expected to come from the loss of virtually half of the school year.

Teachers have been improvising for a month now to continue delivering lessons to their students, using online learning tools mixed in with take-home packets for younger students. Many have indicated the change has been challenging and worry about the outcomes for their students both academically and emotionally.

Dickson indicated that support would be particularly important for groups at risk of academic failure, including students whose families are impoverished and those who are learning English.

Small group learning or individual tutoring, whether online or in person, could be pursued as early as this summer, Dickson said, though that is dependent on the progress in the fight against spread of the novel coronavirus.

Dickson said they’re thinking of the pandemic in three phases.

“The first phase … (is) what we’re calling the ‘new now’ rather than the ‘new normal,’” Dickson said. “Nothing’s normal about this situation.”

She said officials would focus on making sure students are fed and that learning continues, supporting the social and emotional needs of both students and staff and continuing to pay the many employees who work at the school districts throughout the state. The superintendent and the governor expressed consideration for the students adversely affected, especially high school seniors who will miss out on traditions like prom and graduation.

They also acknowledged the closure would affect the students’ families and school staff, who have to adjust to teaching kids who are home.

The governor said he was particularly concerned about making sure seniors are college- and career-ready when they graduate this year.

Just what the graduation ceremonies will look like, however, remains unknown, as health officials expect a surge in cases of COVID-19 in a matter of weeks. The social distancing measures that are seen as key to slowing the spread of the pandemic are apparently succeeding in flattening the curve of new cases, which also increases the time until the peak of cases.

The Park City School District announced its high school graduation would be postponed until later in the summer. Utah Valley University and Utah State University have announced their commencements have been pushed back until August, while the University of Utah announced a planned virtual commencement at the end of this month.

Teachers and administrators have been forced to improvise to provide for the needs of their students while schools have been closed.

Those needs range from academic instruction to the 10 meals per week districts provide some students to the social and emotional support students receive through interacting with their peers and the school environment.

Park City Superintendent Jill Gildea said in a statement the pandemic is a historical moment students may never forget and one that might define their generation.

“School is no longer the source of stability and connection that many of our students rely upon,” Gildea wrote. “During this time, however, educators play a critical role in supporting the social-emotional well-being of their students. That responsibility carries with it considerable stress and emotional labor for our teachers as it does for our families and community at large. We are aware of how much time, care, energy, and love is being poured into lesson development.”

Teachers say they are putting in long hours and adapting to new technologies like video conferencing software to communicate with and educate their students.

Many worry, however, about the students who need the most support, like those whose parents are no longer working and those who live in unsafe environments and rely on school to be a safe space.

“It’s a lot easier to disappear in an online class than to disappear in the back of a classroom,” Park City High School English teacher Matt Nagle said last month.

Dickson said she supports the continued shut down.

“I know that this decision was not made without some deep thinking and consideration for our students, our families, our teachers,” she said.

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