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Park City’s teachers are conflicted over reopening, union leader says

School buses turn out of the drop-off lot and onto Kilby Rd. after dropping kids off at Ecker Hill Middle School Friday morning, August 25, 2017.
Tanzi Propst/Park Record

Teachers are concerned heading into the new school year, frustrated by a lack of clarity about what to expect in their classrooms and scared for their health and that of their students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But many are also looking forward to reuniting with their students, a leader of the Park City teacher’s union said.

“Teachers are running the gamut of emotions and that’s because it is completely unknown. Teachers are planners. Teachers plan out literally their entire year, how they’re going to deliver their lessons, the sequencing, all of that. And they simply cannot plan right now,” said Julie Hooker, a Park City High School English teacher and co-president of the Park City Education Association. “… This is my 20th year and I have never felt more ‘first day’ jitters and the first day is almost a month away.”

School districts around the state are required to submit plans to the Utah State Board of Education by the end of the week stating how they’re going to safely repopulate schools.

Hooker said that teachers have served on committees tasked with crafting those plans in Park City but that there are still many unknowns heading into the school year, which is scheduled to start Aug. 20.

“It’s going to look very different,” she said. “This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

For one thing, the workload on teachers is nearly doubled by having to support online learning as well as teaching students in the classroom, she said. And since those virtual demands are mostly new, teachers don’t have the same curriculum they’ve honed over years to rely on.

Hooker said teachers will likely have to spend a significant amount of time in the first quarter of the year implementing sanitization and mask-wearing protocols, especially with the youngest learners, taking time away from education.

Teachers are already facing the increased pressure of having to help students overcome a learning deficit caused by emergency remote learning accommodations put in place as the pandemic hit this spring. That interruption may have left many students behind, officials have said.

Hooker also questioned whether it is the right move to go back to in-person learning as it’s become clear that younger people can spread the disease asymptomatically, just as adults can.

Hooker said six of her adult friends have recently been diagnosed with COVID-19 and in each case, they caught it from their child.

“That’s how it’s going to spread,” Hooker said, talking about socializing among teens. “And our kids, they’re not going to social distance — they can’t. Their frontal lobes aren’t fully developed.”

Some at-risk teachers are hoping to work remotely, she said, as are some who share a home with people who are deemed high-risk.

The Park City School District has offered three options for students this year: fully remote, online learning; an in-person schedule that resembles normal schooling; and a hybrid of the two.

Parents have a deadline of Aug. 7 to select an option for their student’s first quarter or trimester of learning. Until enrollment numbers come in, it’s hard for teachers to know what their responsibilities will be and challenging for the district to know how many teachers to hire.

And there are concerns about how to maintain a safe environment in different rooms. Most classrooms have sinks for students to wash their hands, but some do not. Hooker said she teaches in a classroom without windows, leading to questions about ventilation.

She said that she has full faith in the administration and district to protect teachers and students, but the situation is without clear answers and fraught with difficulty.

“So yes, we’re afraid,” she said. “I’m afraid of getting the virus. I’m afraid that I could spread it. My mother is 86 years old. I’m afraid that I could pass it on to an immunocompromised child.”

She said teachers are also concerned with enforcing a mask mandate in their classrooms, but more concerned with student behavior outside of the classroom.

“Older kids, they’re going to walk out for lunch, rip their mask off, get in their car and drive to Alberto’s for lunch,” she said. “We can manage what happens in our classroom. It’s impossible to manage what happens outside.”

One teacher she knows who had COVID-19 in April still is too short of breath to go on hikes, she said, and there is fear among teachers regarding unknown consequences of the disease.

Still, she said, “teachers teach,” and are finding creative solutions.

Park City teachers aren’t the only ones adapting. One North Summit kindergarten teacher, Camellia Robbins, said she is excited to get back to school and interact with students. She bought a special soap dispenser this summer that dispenses soap in the shape of Mickey Mouse in the hopes of making hand-washing enticing to her young students.

“While things will be different and there will be challenges, I believe we can make this year successful and fun,” Robbins wrote in an email to The Park Record.

Hooker said other teachers are considering things like playing a song to mark the time for hand-washing and mask-adjusting.

Many teachers entered the profession to connect with kids, Hooker said, and many said this spring that missing their students was the hardest part of adjusting to the pandemic.

But the consequences of returning are real and sobering, Hooker said, and teachers are weighing them alongside a desire to return.

“As soon as COVID hit, I updated all of my will information,” Hooker said. “I think one of the things that really, really, really scares … us is knowing that there are go-to docs that they can send out saying a student or a teacher or a staff member died. I mean, I understand that on an intellectual level. On an emotional level, to know that we are prepared for that scenario, that’s tough.”


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