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Tensions mount between teachers, Park City Board of Education over reopening concerns

Jeff Dempsey
The Park Record
Blue panes of plexiglass divide spaced out tables around a classroom at McPolin Elementary School on Wednesday, August 19, 2020. Each table is also equipped with their own hand sanitizers and Kleenex boxes.
Tanzi Propst/Park Record

Tension continued to build between the Park City Board of Education and many of the district’s teachers as the first full week of classes began, with the Park City Education Association arguing for greater safety measures in schools and the elected officials expressing frustration with the way teachers have aired their concerns.

The teachers union directed a letter to Superintendent Dr. Jill Gildea and the board last week outlining — in great detail — its concerns over the district’s reopening plans and pleading with district leadership to “prioritize the safety of your staff as well as students.”

In the letter, obtained by The Park Record, the association’s leadership says it conducted a survey of members in which 65% of respondents indicated they would only feel safe returning to in-person learning if class sizes were reduced. No amount of other mitigating measures, the letter said, will make a difference if teachers and students cannot properly distance.

Among the other issues outlined in the letter are what the association characterizes as miscommunication and lack of guidance regarding distance learning as well as a lack of personal protective equipment. Union leadership said teachers were leaving campus at lunch on the first day of classes Thursday to purchase their own protective equipment. They also said demands from administration differ at the four elementary campuses, adding to the confusion.

“Educators are afraid for their health and the health of their loved ones,” the letter states. “We are said to be essential employees and are the only group of such workers asked to be sequestered in a room with 25-plus people for several hours a day, every day.”

A third stop on a hand washing circuit instructs fifth grade students to wash their fingers and knuckles while thinking of a fun way to remember the states and their capitals on Wednesday, August 19, 2020.
Tanzi Propst/Park Record

The union also expressed concern over a shortage of substitute teachers.

Julie Hooker, co-president of the association, said the conditions are already taking a toll on teachers just a few days into the school year. Three teachers at Park City High School have resigned, she said, as have a number of paraprofessionals.

“PCEA is asking that educators’ fears and concerns be acknowledged and more so, addressed,” the letter states. “Telling educators not to worry is not helpful. Providing sanitation materials is not enough. Show us that you take our concerns seriously. Make the difficult decisions necessary to protect all your employees and students.”

The association’s leadership also took exception to board President Andrew Caplan’s remarks in a Park Record article indicating the association has told the board that teachers are “happy coming back.”

“We never used the term ‘happy,’” the letter states. “We are concerned. We are pensive. We are anxious. For months we have expressed our concerns about the types of learning being offered; the communication with staff and the community; and overall safety.”

The letter concludes by urging the district to reduce class sizes. It also asked officials to delay the start of school if necessary.

“We understand it is inconvenient, but what you are asking schools and staff to do is untenable.”

Board of Education responds

In a letter to teachers Monday, the five-member school board collectively responded to teacher concerns, acknowledging not every teacher agrees with how the return to school has been handled. The board members thanked teachers for their efforts so far and said they are committed to keeping teachers and students safe; the district has spent $2 million so far on personal protective equipment, they said, a number that will likely grow.

“We recognize there will be challenges with both in-person and remote learning during this semester and throughout the year,” states the board’s letter, which The Park Record obtained. “Please know that we respect and appreciate the magnitude of this time and our collective decisions to teach and support all children with learning, socialization, nutrition and a safe learning environment.”

The board’s letter goes on to discourage teachers from sharing their frustrations via “email and social media campaigns” and asks them to refrain from bringing individual concerns to the board. If teachers have concerns, the elected officials wrote, they should reach out to their union representatives or the “relevant administration.”

“Form letter email and social media campaigns of any sort are not only inappropriate and unprofessional but are also ineffective when they go against what association leadership represents to us publicly and privately,” the board’s letter states.

Teachers and staff at McPolin Elementary have spent time preparing by taping out designated desk areas in classrooms, walk flow in hallways and prepackaging school supplies.
Tanzi Propst/Park Record

The letter also addresses teacher salary increases up for approval at the board’s Wednesday meeting, an “enormous financial commitment from the community” the board says has been put in jeopardy.

“Please understand that the actions of a few are jeopardizing our ability to deliver on this much warranted salary increase,” the letter states. “When a group of your peers continuously undermine the district through print, radio and social media because they are not getting their way please understand it hurts us all in the eyes of the community. You as a group need to collectively make a decision on which direction to take. We must all recognize that the children and their education comes first.”

The board letter suggests some teachers are “more focused on the politics and rhetoric from (Utah Education Association) and (National Education Association) than the education of the children of our community.”

The letter concludes by saying there is no business more essential than education.

“We cannot state enough how appreciative we are that you have decided to continue to honor your commitment to the community’s children,” it states.

Gildea pleased with return so far

In an email to The Park Record, Gildea said the district has been preparing to reopen for the school year since before campuses were shut down in March.

“The start of school has been incredible,” she said. “We have welcomed back our students, launched a remote option, and our educators are working to ensure that no matter the learning mode (in person, blended, or remote), that the students will be successful.”

Gildea said lunch periods at the district’s elementary schools — with the exception of social distancing and masks — resemble those during any other year. She also pointed to the return of sports at the high school, including football at Dozier Field limited to 25% seating capacity. Gildea stressed that the district’s teachers and staff are “essential to a successful and positive school year.”

She said the district’s reopening plan and COVID preparedness guide are in line with existing best practices, and she acknowledged that there will likely be a need for multiple learning modalities “through the 20/21 school year and beyond.”

“We will continue to work together,” she said. “But the focus is, and should be, on our staff, students and creating the conditions for health, safety and success.”


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