Park City schools face COVID costs, remote learning changes for 2021
The weeks leading up to the start of the school year are ordinarily busy for Park City School District staffers as they try to hone in on how many students will enroll in school, accomplish last-minute hiring and fine-tune operations.
This year, add to that list a $4.5 million budget amendment, compensation contract negotiations and a global pandemic, and administrators are looking at an unprecedented mix.
“I don’t have numbers today — boy, I’d love to have numbers today,” said Todd Hauber, the Park City School District business administrator. He was speaking Monday, 10 days before the first day of school, about the breakdown of students who have opted for in-person learning, fully remote learning, or a combination of the two. “It really changes minute by minute,” he added.
Park City Superintendent Jill Gildea offered that more than 90% of students are planning to return to in-person learning Aug. 20, while approximately 40-50 students in each grade are opting for a fully online learning experience and about 150 students total have opted for a hybrid model.
Friday was the deadline for parents to choose which learning mode worked best for their student, a decision that would be binding for the first grading period.
Hauber said the district is still “beating the bushes” for students who haven’t yet enrolled, a process that normally continues through Labor Day but this year is complicated because it affects how the district will allocate staff resources for the different modes of learning.
Gildea said the district is lucky to have a high ratio of students to adult staffers who may be able to lead smaller, break-out sessions to lower class sizes. She added that the district is examining options to aid social distancing at the high school, which is the district’s largest facility.
Those options include a rotation schedule or an in-person/online hybrid model and are being considered for the first quarter of the school year.
A hybrid online/in-person schedule offers epidemiological challenges, Gildea said, because it increases the number of contacts a student has during the week. In the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, the district has said it will work with the county Health Department to perform contact tracing to identify students who should quarantine or monitor for symptoms.
When a student is not at school for half the week, the number of people that student contacts may increase, and the job will be harder for district employees than if the student had been sitting in their assigned seat each day.
Teachers have expressed mixed feelings about returning to the classroom, balancing possibly life-threatening health risks with the desire to reconnect with students.
Gildea reported that the number of teachers who have expressed interest in remote learning has roughly matched the anticipated need for online-only staffing, which she called “great news.”
The Park City Board of Education is scheduled to meet Aug. 25 to revise its budget after cutting more than $3 million in response to anticipated state cuts that did not materialize.
According to budget documents released by the district, board members will deliberate a $4.5 million budget amendment that includes a $2.4 million compensation increase earmarked for teachers and staff and $1.8 million in COVID-related expenses, among other items.
The district plans to pay for these increases with $1.4 million in property tax revenue increases that come from new growth and increased value in the district, $2.8 million in restored state funding, $350,000 in federal coronavirus-related funding and $60,000 in local grants.
The board had previously cut off negotiations with the teacher’s union and announced it would freeze salaries as a result of the pandemic, indicating at the time it wanted to pay teachers more but could not afford to do so.
The details of the compensation increase are being negotiated and have not been publicly released and, like other changes to the budget, must be ratified by the board.
Hauber said much of the $1.8 million in COVID-related expenses are initial costs like purchasing equipment and that the cost burden will likely be lower to maintain the programs compared to starting them. The district won’t have to buy a large batch of new cameras to facilitate distance learning in 2022, for example, though it will have to replace and repair them eventually.
“Getting people trained to teach in the online environment, that’s a huge upfront cost,” he said, estimated at $330,000. “But once they’re there, you just have continuing education to remain fully competent in new skills.”
Other big-ticket items in the $1.8 million COVID-related expenditures include $400,000 for a camera system for 100 classrooms to record lessons for students to access remotely, $270,000 for personal protective equipment, $233,000 to help make summer school free and $210,000 to support students with special education needs, according to a breakdown provided by the district.
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Debate continues about schooling in a pandemic, as Park City students petition to stay in school, 78% of secondary teachers opt for remote, and case numbers remain low ahead of a feared post-Thanksgiving spike.