Some teachers fear returning to full classes, say social distancing is impossible
The first day of school in Park City is Thursday and teachers are looking forward to it with the jitters and anxiety associated with a new school year.
But nine teachers who spoke to The Park Record say another emotion is taking precedence as their return to the classroom nears.
“I’m afraid,” said Kevin Fober, a history teacher at Park City High School.
“Teachers are very anxious,” said Perrine Voisin, a French immersion teacher at Trailside Elementary School.
“I’m a little concerned about (the first day),” said Ed Mulick, a biology teacher at PCHS.
“I’m afraid for myself, for my family, for my community,” said Josh Goldberg, a social studies teacher at PCHS. “That’s kind of where I am right now.”
The group of teachers, mostly from the high school but joined by educators at other levels, all said they disagreed with the Park City School District’s plan to begin the school year with full-time, in-person learning.
The problem, they said, is that it is impossible to create the recommended 6 feet of distance between students while having most of the student body in schools at one time.
“I’d like to see the number of students in the classroom reduced so we can socially distance in our classrooms,” said Megan McKenna, a science teacher at the high school. “There are lots of other models out there. Several other districts adopted hybrid models that cut the number of students in half.”
Initial plans from the district allowed parents to choose among an in-person option, a fully online option and a hybrid of the two. Park City Superintendent Jill Gildea has said that 90% of students opted for in-person learning, while around 150 students district-wide have a schedule that could be considered a hybrid model. District officials estimate around 4,700 students will be enrolled this year.
Board of Education President Andrew Caplan agreed that social distancing is impossible in many school situations, but said that mirrors other aspects of everyday life. The board and administrators, he said, are doing the best they can in an imperfect situation.
“There’s no perfect answer,” he said. “I think the plan the district came up with is one that provides equitable education. We provide a choice where, if people aren’t feeling comfortable, students can stay home. If they are, they can come to school.”
Caplan said an ad-hoc hybrid model that allows students to choose their own schedule and come to school a few days a week would be logistically impossible. He added that the district is ready to pivot to an online/in-person hybrid model if coronavirus case numbers warrant it, but that returning to school in person and full time offers many benefits for students and families.
He said the district is trying to reduce the risk, but that eliminating it is impossible. He added that education remains an essential service for reasons beyond learning, including safety and nutrition.
The board is set to approve $1.8 million in COVID-related expenses at a budget hearing next week, including spending for sanitization equipment, facilities upgrades and personal protective equipment.
But that might be little comfort for the teachers on the front lines who face the prospect of being inside a closed room with different classes of up to 30 young people at a time who cannot adequately space themselves apart.
The nine teachers who spoke on the record see a district-wide hybrid or blended model as a potential path forward. One example is a system in which one cohort of students comes to school on Mondays and Tuesdays and another comes in on Thursdays and Fridays.
Mulick, a 30-year district veteran, said bringing all of the students back into the buildings is “almost like a recipe for disaster.”
“The overall strategy to contain the spread of the virus, to me, feels like it’s kind of a rash plan to put all of the kids into this one building,” he said. “I would feel much more comfortable having a modified schedule that could meet the needs of students, the needs of parents and the needs of teachers.”
County health officials and district administrators have said that kind of model poses challenges for contact tracing and could in fact spread the virus faster. While it might enable adequate social distancing, an outbreak could be harder to contain as students might be contacting more people in their days outside of school.
The Summit County Health Department clarified in a letter last week that it does not have oversight authority regarding the district’s reopening plans, though it has worked closely with the superintendent.
To a person, the teachers said that they were excited to return to school and see their students again after finishing the last school year remotely.
But most said they fear a full return to school may cause an outbreak that would require schools to shut down again.
Many teachers were reluctant to speak on the record, expressing unease about how voicing their objections may impact their employment.
Some initially declined to be interviewed, then reconsidered, while others offered unvarnished opinions only to later ask that their words and names not be printed. Many of the teachers who felt comfortable speaking have worked in the district for years.
Most teachers were careful to note that they spoke only for themselves. Some said that they knew of other teachers who supported the full in-person return. Caplan said that teachers’ representatives have consistently reported that they were on board with a full, in-person return to schools.
“What you’re hearing is a very loud minority,” Caplan said. “… If leadership said they’re not happy coming back, that’s a different story. Every time we talk with them, they reiterate they’re happy coming back.”
Julie Hooker, the co-president of the Park City Education Association, the union that represents Park City teachers, said “happy is not the word I would choose to describe our feelings at this time.”
“Pensive, anxious, and concerned better describe how our members are feeling right now,” she wrote in a message to The Park Record. “… Our children cannot learn if they are not in a safe environment.”
Several teachers said a survey circulated by the association earlier this summer revealed deep apprehension about the district’s plans. The association did not comment on that survey.
Caplan said that schools provide sanctuaries for students, places where they can learn and get meals and possibly some security from unsafe home environments. And for parents, he said, having kids out of school for half the week would present an impossible choice between working to support the family or staying home to watch the kids and risk losing their jobs.
He added that there have been more deaths in Summit County this year from ski accidents and car crashes than from the coronavirus.
“At some point our kids have to go back to school,” he said. “… What’s the right answer? Is it to stay home for a whole other year?”
Gaylynn Mooney is a longtime chemistry teacher at the high school. She, like many other teachers, said social distancing is impossible in her classroom.
Her son is at high risk for COVID-19, she said, and she and her husband are the primary caretakers of her 94-year-old mother-in-law, who lives across the street from her.
She wears a mask at home and sleeps in a separate bedroom and uses a separate bathroom in an effort to keep her family safe.
She said she empathizes with the district leaders who have to balance the risks of reopening.
“I do have empathy but I do also have frustration because I think that we have moved away from following science,” she said. “When I back up and look at the big picture, I feel like I’m part of something crazy because we’re in a pandemic and we’re just moving forward. In my opinion, we don’t know enough about this virus and its long-term effects, and it make me feel like I’m part of something crazy.”
Fober, the high school history teacher, has decades of teaching and coaching experience. He said the conflicts of returning to school are tearing him up.
“It’s horrific because, for 35 years, I’ve looked to the first day of school with the same kind of giddiness that a second-grader feels or a kindergartner feels,” he said. “I’ve felt that for 35 years and I don’t feel it. It’s robbed me of something that I can’t get back.”
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The Park City Board of Education is on track to place a bond on the ballot this fall to improve district facilities. The top priorities would be to put ninth grade in the high school, eighth grade in the middle school and to augment preschool offerings by expanding elementary schools.