Utah’s K-12 schools are now dismissed until May 1 due to coronavirus

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All public K-12 schools in Utah will now be dismissed until May 1 — extending what was originally anticipated to be two weeks out of the classroom to nearly two months — as the state tries to gain control of the quickly spreading coronavirus.

Gov. Gary Herbert announced Monday that the “soft closure” of schools would be prolonged, saying that the extra time away will be crucial to slow the rate of infection here and help the youngest in the state avoid contracting COVID-19. He had originally called for students to complete their studies at home for two weeks and was set to reevaluate that shutdown this Friday, when the initial period was up. Though his decision came early, it was largely anticipated.

“These are unprecedented times in Utah’s and our nation’s history,” Herbert said in a statement.

The state’s cases of the coronavirus have spiked over the past week and a half, from six when the governor first called for the school dismissal to now 257 as he extends it.

Classes will continue online, and with printed packets or other assignments, as they have been since March 16. Districts will still provide meals for students who need them. And by the start of May, Herbert will weigh again whether it’s safe for schools to reconvene in-person to finish out the academic year.

The point of the classrooms restrictions, the governor has stressed, is to limit in-person interactions to groups of no more than 10 and slow the spread of the virus through social distancing. As such, the state’s public colleges and universities have already moved online for the remainder of the semester.

In addition, Herbert announced Monday that Utah’s technical colleges will stop instruction and coursework beginning next week until May 1. The bulk of those classes require hands-on learning, and it’s not possible to move them online. Those are the only schools that will be closed entirely, though, and the students there will “be able to seamlessly resume their progress toward completion” after this pause, according to a news release.

K-12 schools will move forward, meanwhile, with individualized plans for each district. Parents should receive emails about those, including staggered times for students to pick up materials, if needed, or whether their child’s classes will be done online.

“We recognize that being away from school creates additional work and stress for everyone in our communities,” said State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson in a statement. “However, it is a necessary step in stopping the spread of COVID-19.”

One persistent concern throughout even just the first week of the school dismissal has been that many families don’t have access to technology or Wi-Fi. So in addition to passing out sack lunches, schools have been checking out computers. Chelsie Acosta, a teacher at Glendale Middle School, said the outbreak has further highlighted those types of existing inequities in education.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Teacher Chelsie Acosta asks a question during a town hall meeting in 2017.

The students are getting through it, though, and she jokes that she probably misses them more than they miss being in class.

“Goodness, I just like seeing them every day,” she added. “It’s really difficult not to.”

In addition to continuing her coursework, Acosta said she’s been trying to reach out to kids in different ways, including SnapChat and Instagram. Her classroom was always a safe space for them to talk about what’s going on in their lives, she said, and she wants them to know that space is still available. She has even had some students reach out to her, including after the recent earthquake, to check that she’s OK.

The hardest part is that Acosta can’t imagine students coming back to school at all this academic year, even after May 1.

“There’s just no way,” she said. “I don’t believe we’ll go back until the beginning of next fall.”

Already, sports, club meetings and school dances are postponed or canceled. Year-end standardized testing is suspended. And whether graduation ceremonies will go on is still being determined.

Overall, the dismissal impacts roughly 660,000 students statewide across 41 public school districts and 116 charters.

Many parents, too, say it’s a hard adjustment, especially when they are trying to work from home during the outbreak. Lana Medina, whose son Dylan goes to kindergarten at Washington Elementary, is balancing her job with his education.

“I’m a little bit daunted by the next six weeks of no school,” Medina said.

Her son has already finished the two weeks worth of work that his teachers gave him in a packet. And he’s gone up two levels in his online programs.

What he’s missing, though, Medina can’t give him right now: time with his friends and social interaction with kids his age that he usually gets at school.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lana Medina learns about some of the fun assignments her son Dylan, 5, had a chance to do on his first day of kindergarten at Washington Elementary on Monday, Aug. 19, 2019.

Dickson acknowledged that extending the school dismissal will be a challenge for many.

To abide by the governor’s restrictions on crowds, employees at school buildings will be limited. Teachers are encouraged to work from home, which most have never done. Parents are struggling with the increased demands. And students are burdened with learning a new system for their studies.

“During the uncertainties of the coming weeks,” the superintendent noted, “it is more important than ever to remain socially connected with our students and families while doing our best to ensure learning continues.”