Most Utah schools, colleges are expected to open this fall

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) The empty playground at Hawthorne Elementary in Salt Lake City after schools around the state were closed this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Most K-12 schools and colleges in Utah are expected to welcome back students this fall, according to new guidance released Wednesday by the governor.

The return will come just a few months after classrooms were shut down in March to avoid spreading the coronavirus. They’ll only be allowed to open again in August with strict requirements for spacing and sanitation.

But classes can now be held in person. Sport teams can resume practices and games. And regular school activities — including graduations, clubs and assemblies — can carry on.

“We’re anxious to get back,” said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education. “That’s what we’re planning on.”

The reopening of schools will still be contingent on how the pandemic continues to play out in the state where there have been 8,706 cases and more than 100 deaths. But Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said in his guidance Wednesday that he doesn’t anticipate any setbacks.

“We are making progress,” he said in a statement.

Utah stands alone in broadly declaring that most, if not all, schools will be open come fall. Others, such as Massachusetts and Colorado, have hinted at similar moves.

The guidance for schools here will apply to all areas that Herbert has put in the “yellow,” or low risk, status for spreading the virus. Those not included in that are Salt Lake City, West Valley City, Magna, Grand County and parts of San Juan County, which remain in “orange,” or moderate, risk.

The governor, though, also anticipates those areas will join the rest of the state shortly and all areas and all public schools — not just most — will be able to open by August. Already, the University of Utah, which is in the “orange” jurisdiction of Salt Lake City, has said it will resume face-to-face classes.

The other seven public colleges in the state opted to do the same Wednesday, according to a separate announcement from the Utah System of Higher Education.

Colleges here were first instructed to move their courses online to avoid infections March 12. Utah’s K-12 schools followed suit with an announcement the following day. The decision to reopen, in fact, comes before some districts have finished their academic years.

What it means for K-12 schools

Students in K-12 will be able to return to the classroom, but under the governor’s order it likely won’t look the same as before.

There will be hand sanitizer stations set up around each school. And regular hand-washing routines will be instituted. In some school districts, State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson has previously said, the students may be required to go to the sink and clean up every hour to avoid infection.

“It’s like sanitization on steroids,” she said earlier this month, noting that will also include deep disinfecting of school buildings and buses.

Additionally, the governor’s guidance advises that desks be spaced 6 feet apart in the classroom to maintain social distancing. With Utah’s large class sizes — some including up to 50 kids — that may not always be feasible, so it suggests otherwise to seat them “as far apart as reasonably possible.”

The rules advise teachers, too, to take strict attendance so that if there is a case of the virus that arises, the school can have an accurate way to do contact tracing.

Faculty and staff will be required to wear face masks when distance isn’t possible. And school districts or charters are asked to work with their local health department on whether to also require students to wear masks.

“You might see masks in schools on kiddos,” Dickson said.

All students will be monitored for the virus, as well. That could include temperature checks before allowing anyone in the building each morning. Schools without thermometers are being told to budget for those, specifically using money allocated by Congress with the CARES Act.

Any students or staff with symptoms will be asked to stay home. Parents should be watchful and willing to adapt.

Meanwhile, the governor is allowing sports, activities and graduations to now happen again in person after those were canceled this spring.

Peterson with the Utah Board of Education said the board’s members will release more detailed information Thursday. But many decisions beyond hygiene and spacing will be left to school districts to decide.

Those may include staggering start times so not as many students are entering the building together. It might also mean not having meals in the lunchroom. It could also include what’s called “looping” where students move to the next grade, but have the same teacher who could help them catch up on any work missed due to the pandemic.

Additionally, it will be up to school districts and charters to decide if they do a combination of online learning and in-person instruction. Having the option to learn or teach online will be particularly critical to students and educators who are immunocompromised or otherwise at high risk of contracting the virus.

Dickson noted: “Based on risk factors, there are some students that may still need to learn remotely.”

She’s recommending “blended” models that accommodate all needs for the 660,000 students across K-12.

What it means for colleges and universities

After announcements from the University of Utah and Utah State University on Tuesday, all public colleges in the state — and one private one, Westminster College in Salt Lake City — are also planning to open their doors for fall semester.

The Utah System of Higher Education released what it’s calling “gating conditions” Wednesday for that to happen.

"Though we can’t fully predict what the fall will look like, we feel we are on a trajectory to welcome our students back to campus while taking necessary precautions,” said Dave Woolstenhulme, interim commissioner of higher education for the state.

In order to return, all colleges in the state are asked to prepare to monitor for outbreaks and to be able to contain them. That could include using thermometers to check temperatures or testing groups of students, such as the football team, for the virus.

Each school should also have a a shutdown plan, if necessary, in the case of an outbreak.

Students can expect the campus experience to be much different than usual. There won’t be large auditorium-style classes. For the most part, class sizes will be kept small for those returning. And some courses will remain online for those at higher risk of infection, including both students and professors.

A few classes will be a hybrid where half a class may meet in the room and the other half may join via videoconference. Or half of the instruction days are in person and the other half virtual.

For those meeting face to face, desks will be spread 6 feet apart.

Each college will also be required to deeply sanitize every building and space where students are, including a high focus on dorms, which will be open. When there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 in on-campus housing, those students must quarantine.

Every university can come up with its own individual plans, too. The U., for instance, is considering whether to require everyone to wear a mask. Southern Utah University in Cedar City, where there are few cases of the virus, views it more as “a significant step in getting back to a sense of normalcy,” according to a statement from President Scott Wyatt.

Utah State and others plan to install sanitizing stations on campus. Westminster College will not have a fall break and will conduct the last week of school online. Those plans are supposed to be posted on each university’s website.

The reopening, overall, will affect roughly 190,000 college students.

Under the governor’s guidance, universities in the state won’t be liable for outbreaks as long as they “take reasonable steps to comply with state guidelines and complete the planning efforts outlined in this report.”