PCHS, Treasure Mountain will move to early-release Fridays as number of remote learners surges
As of Friday, roughly 400 Park City students in grades eight through 12 had opted out of the classroom in favor of learning from home, Superintendent Jill Gildea said, a significant number that officials expect to grow.
According to the Park City Board of Education, some students are choosing to self-quarantine, while others were advised to do so after coming into close contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. One board member at a public meeting Tuesday suggested some might be trying to avoid the virus to preserve their ability to participate in activities and sports events.
Officials anticipate the second academic quarter will see a rise in the number of students opting for remote learning amid a fall surge in cases of COVID-19 in the Park City community. As the number of remote learners grows, the Park City Board of Education is taking steps to relieve the increased pressure remote learning puts on teachers.
“(Some might think) ‘If you talk to three kids at home, what’s the big deal?’ No, this teacher is potentially managing these kids in the class and then this (group of remote students also) and that’s overwhelming,” said Anne Peters, a member of the school board.
On Tuesday, the board advised district officials to amend the schedules at Treasure Mountain Junior High School and Park City High School to give teachers more time to connect with remote learners and plan lessons.
Multiple teachers have told The Park Record that their workload has roughly doubled with the responsibility to teach remote learners as well as in-school students.
Starting Oct. 19, students in grades eight through 12 will be released at 11:50 a.m. on Fridays and will continue to be released at 1:45 p.m. Mondays.
The board opted to keep in place an early release on Mondays to help parents who have scheduled activities then. That allows teachers to touch base with remote learners early in the week and use the end-of-the-week session to plan lessons.
Younger students’ schedules will be unchanged. Gildea wrote in an email to The Park Record that grades kindergarten through seven have teachers dedicated to remote learning for each grade level, allowing in-person teachers to concentrate more on students who are attending the district’s schools.
The Park City Education Association, the union that represents Park City teachers, said it stood behind the board’s move.
“Providing more time to connect with both remote and in person learners helps all students in Park City succeed,” PCEA Co-president Amanda Lawing wrote in an email to The Park Record.
“Therefore, we support the additional time for teachers to make these connections.”
The board also discussed moving to an early release each day of the week, but board members opted for the Friday-only option when they were told it had the overwhelming support of respondents in a survey sent to district parents and teachers.
Amy Hunt, the district’s chief academic officer, said that 80% of parents and staff members who responded to the survey supported the plan for an early release on Friday. Both options would shave the same amount of time from the school week, and the decision facing board members was whether to allocate that time in one chunk or throughout the week.
According to the survey results, teachers preferred releasing students early each day rather than an earlier release on Fridays. A majority favored either option for adding additional time to handle the needs of remote learners.
Peters, who said she was speaking as a working parent, suggested that a daily early release schedule might be more disruptive for families than arranging for additional child care one day per week.
She also pointed out that maintaining the Monday early release and adding the half-day Friday essentially means that district parents who have children in grades eight through 12 will only have three normal working days per week.
Peters asked Hunt whether the district had discussed extending the school day Monday through Thursday and making Fridays fully remote, adding that might be an easier arrangement for working parents.
Hunt told the board that moving to fully-remote Fridays had been the most popular option with teachers in an informal survey circulated among their ranks, but that the district had not polled the community about it.
Representatives from the teachers’ union did not respond to a request for comment about the proposal for Fridays to be fully remote days.
Board members suggested that they would like to check in with teachers, parents and students in coming weeks to see how the new schedule is working.
It is expected the schedule change will cost more than $65,000, largely due to needing additional bus routes.
The board’s conversation came hours after the Wasatch County School District announced it would cancel in-person learning at its high school for two weeks in an attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Park City board members suggested they might be faced with a similar decision in coming months as case numbers are expected to rise.
Gildea told the board that she suspected the Utah Department of Education would be issuing guidance to enable a shorter quarantine period for close contacts of people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Instead of waiting 14 days to reenter the schools, students would be able to come back after the seventh day following exposure if they test negative for the virus that day.
Gildea said evidence had shown that only 1.2% of close contacts end up being diagnosed with COVID-19.
The shorter quarantine wouldn’t apply to students who have been in close contact while not wearing a mask, like those who eat lunch together, but would apply to students whose contact comes in the classroom, like those who sit at a desk next to a student who is infected.
Gildea indicated that spread in the classroom setting was less prevalent than spread among friend groups outside of school, sports teams and families.
Board President Andrew Caplan said the data suggests that students are safer in school than outside of it, where mask use and social distancing measures may not be enforced as consistently.
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Park City School District is partnering with the Utah Department of Health to provide free rapid testing for COVID-19 to the entire Park City community.