Utah K-12 schools will remain closed through academic year due to coronavirus

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) An empty classroom at Elk Ridge Middle School in South Jordan, on Thursday, April 2, 2020.

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All public K-12 schools in Utah will remain dismissed through the end of the academic year — instead of having students return to the classroom next month, as hoped — as the state continues to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

Graduation ceremonies, in accordance with that decision, will now be moved online for the senior class. Students will continue completing their school work remotely through the end of the quarter. And the new hope is that school will resume again in-person in the fall.

Gov. Gary Herbert announced the decision to extend the “soft closure” of schools Tuesday, saying that prolonging the time students are away and not meeting in large groups is crucial to slow the rate of infection here. In March, he had originally called for students to complete their studies at home for two weeks. That was later pushed to the start of May. Now, he said, it’s still “too early” to return.

“This is not the time to have our schools back open in those crowded rooms we have,” he said. “I think everyone understands the challenge we face and the reason for it.”

The number of state cases of the coronavirus has spiked over the past month, from six when the governor first called for the school dismissal to now 2,412, as he extends it once again.

Classes will move forward online, he said, and with printed packets or other assignments, as they have been since March 16. And districts will still provide meals for students who need them.

The decision, overall, impacts roughly 660,000 students statewide across 41 public school districts and 116 charters.

Ainsley Moench, a 12th grader at Skyline High School, said it’s particularly hard for graduating seniors. She wanted to walk across the stage and grab her diploma. And she’d already picked out a dress for her prom, which was scheduled for this Saturday.

Now, the dance is canceled and graduation will be virtual.

“I think they made the best decision they could,” Moench said. “It’s still really disappointing.”

Each district will be able to choose exactly how those online graduations work, said state Superintendent Sydnee Dickson, who acknowledged that the situation is not ideal. But she hopes students will still celebrate their accomplishments.

Moench said it’s obviously not the end to her high school experience that she wanted and wishes that school districts could have just postponed the commencement ceremonies. Already, sports and club meetings have been canceled. Year-end standardized testing, too, was suspended. And she doesn’t feel like she has much left.

“I think we’re all missing that interaction that makes it fun to go to school,” she said.

The point of the classroom restrictions, the governor has said, 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. Most of the higher education institutions, though, are holding graduations later in the summer.

Dickson said she understands that missing out on the rituals of senior year is difficult. She stressed, however, that safety is the top priority. Going forward, she added, means dealing with “the new now” rather than “the new normal.”

“Nothing is normal about this situation,” she said.

To abide by the governor’s restrictions, the number of 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 providing child care and homework help. And students are burdened with learning a new system for their studies.

Some kids don’t have internet access or computers at home, which also has been a challenge.

“As such, we know that some of our students have disengaged,” Dickson noted.

As the dismissal now continues until summer, she listed five areas of concern that she’s focused on: Feeding students in need, making sure learning continues, helping seniors graduate and transition into higher education and the work force, providing for the social and emotional needs of families and teachers, and making sure employees can still be employed and paid, including bus drivers and para-educators.

She’s asking that teachers be lenient on grading and “realize the stress of this time.” And she thanked students for being resilient.

School counseling also will be available via phone for anyone struggling.

Nicholas Bielaczyc, a teacher at East High School, said he doesn’t believe online learning is the best method, but keeping kids out of the classroom is “the only option” during the virus outbreak. He’s trying to find resources that all students can access and wants to keep them engaged and learning. It’s a struggle.

“There are a lot of differences in terms of what students have available and what they are capable of doing on their own in terms of navigating and completing work,” the educator said.

Herbert acknowledged the transition “hasn’t been perfect.” Bielaczyc just noted: “I hope all will be better in the fall.”

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