Five things COVID-19 has changed about education in Utah

The pandemic has “really, truly acted as the catalyst” to transform education, one educator says.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Self-portraits of students wearing masks hang on a wall at Crescent Elementary in Sandy on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. As Utah school districts struggled to make the most of the pandemic school year, they’ve come away some innovations that are expected to stay long after the coronavirus has subsided.

COVID-19 has given education a beating. More kids are failing than ever before. Dropout rates are up, inequities have been widened. Teachers have had panic attacks.

But the pain hasn’t entirely been for naught. As Utah school districts struggled to make the most of the past school year, they’ve come away with knowledge and innovations. Projects that had been bandied around for years, or even decades, suddenly coalesced. New ideas took root.

And as districts begin planning for next school year, which will hold its own cadre of pandemic-related uncertainties, they’re putting many of those new discoveries into play.

One thing that’s certain is that the way school is done will never be the same.

“I don’t think there are many good things that have come out of the pandemic,” said ScotMcCombs, the Canyons School District’s information technology director. “... But the one thing that it has done is it’s really, truly acted as the catalyst to truly transform education. And, you know, we’ve tried for 20 years in education to really try to transform the way that we’ve taught.”

Here are five ways the coronavirus has changed education in Utah.

A computer in every home

Just as Herbert Hoover’s presidential campaign guaranteed “a chicken in every pot and a car in every driveway,” Utah schools are promising a computer in every backpack.

Plans to put a laptop, Chromebook or other portable computer in every student’s hands had been in place in school districts across the state for months or even years before the pandemic. But those plans were shoved into action when in-person education shut down last March. Suddenly, what had been an innovation became imperative.

Will schools continue to provide students access to computers even after in-person classes — without the threat of quarantine closures — return to being the norm? The answer appears to be a resounding yes.

Canyons School District announced a plan last month to not only provide all students, from elementary to high school, with a portable computer, but to let them keep the device after they graduate.

[Read more: A Utah school district is committing to a virtual future beyond the pandemic]

“If a family had one device at home that had five kiddos, we had not really considered them part of the digital divide until that dismissal,” said McCombs. “And we saw, you know, there are lots of families in this situation right now. They may have a device, but all of a sudden mom and dad are trying to use it and to say, ‘Well, you five kiddos are going to have to wait in line for mom and dad to finish,’ that just isn’t fair to them.”

McCombs said the district had expected the cost of the devices to be covered in part by student fees. That fell apart when the Utah Board of Education recently decided Chromebooks and other portable computers will be considered on par with textbooks starting in the 2022-23 school year, which means districts can’t pay for them through student fees. Still, ensuring every kid has access to a computer so important, McCombs said, that the district will find a way to make it happen.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to continue moving forward with the one-to-one,” he said.

The Jordan, Davis and Granite districts have already supplied all their students with computers. Alpine School District is considering a similar program for its junior high and high school students, which temporarily may be supported by student fees. The Salt Lake City School District is not at the level of providing a device to every student, and its board hasn’t voted on whether to go that direction next year, said spokesperson Yándary Chatwin.

But will there be Wi-Fi?

Computers do students little good if they don’t have access to the internet. So, schools are putting in motion ways to provide broadband coverage to their kids in the long run.

Ogden School District last month received unanimous approval from its school board to begin transmitting an LTE high-speed wireless signal from area cell towers as a way to provide internet access to all of its students. Murray launched a similar program in January.

The school LTE networks are less expensive than loaning out hot spots, a tack many schools took this year. Jer Bates, a spokesperson for the Ogden district, said the on-average 450 mobile hot spots the district used each month this year cost about $20 each per month. The LTE signals cost closer to $2 per month per hotspot. Plus, they allow students to only access the same content they can at school through the Utah Education Network. In other words, they can’t be used for streaming or gaming unrelated to education.

The cost could be reduced even further through economies of scale, Bates said, if more districts join in.

“I mean,” he said, “just how thrilling would it be to know that anywhere around Utah a kid who needs internet access for doing schoolwork could get it?”

Canyons has installed LTE coverage in Midvale, but it’s also hoping to try a different approach to widening its broadband net. McCombs said the district is in talks with city and county officials about providing eduroam service at parks and near public buildings. Eduroam is a secure Wi-Fi service that provides internet access to verified students and faculty of colleges, universities and public schools.

Students can learn from (almost) anywhere

Armed with laptops and Wi-Fi, students can learn from almost anywhere. Does that mean parents can start planning trips midyear without worry that their child will be counted absent or fall behind?

The short answer is, it’s complicated.

There appears to be desire for continued flexibility. The Jordan School District on Tuesday released results of a poll that showed parents and students strongly favor keeping the current schedule, in which students attend classes in-person four days a week and online on Fridays. Of the 16,000 respondents, 47% said they were “very satisfied” with the schedule and 78% were either in favor of it or indifferent about it.

“It sure seems clear that we need to pay some attention,” said Bryce Dunford, the vice president of the district’s school board. “Maybe we’re onto something. Maybe this is something that we really ought to consider.

“I never expected this many people to be this positive and feel this strongly.”

The district has assembled a committee to study the issue further and determine whether it would be sustainable. Part of that comes down to whether the state Board of Education makes permanent some of the exceptions it made this year for when and how districts can allow kids to attend school remotely.

Dunford said he’s heard the criticism that families treat the virtual day as a third weekend day. He argues, however, that in addition to freeing up a day in which teachers can spend one-on-one time with students who need extra help, it gives parents more flexibility. As long as students are learning, he’s all for that. That’s also why he’s a proponent of putting cameras in each classroom so teachers can record their lessons.

“My personal vision is that every class is filmed and recorded,” Dunford said, “so that if a student is on vacation, they can just step aside, go into a room, log in and watch the class from wherever.”

The Murray district also plans to continue to record its teachers, as well as offer synchronized online and in-person classes moving forward. It gives the schools options and ways to include those who need alternatives, district spokesperson Doug Perry said. That includes students who couldn’t attend class because of a prolonged injury or illness, or those who have thrived in the online learning setup.

“Teaching synchronized classes?” Perry said. “I think that’s here to stay one way or another.”

If the state board doesn’t go along with allowing schools to continue one day of at-home learning, Jordan does have another option in the works that would allow students to take classes from anywhere. It will be launching three schools — a high school, middle school and elementary — as virtual schools, where students will conduct all of their schooling online (though Dunford said each will have a campus for one-on-one or small-group instruction, if needed).

That’s not a bad skill to be teaching our students right now, is how to how to succeed virtually,” Dunford said.

Snow days will never be the same

Snow days always felt like impromptu holidays for many who grew up with them. It was as if Mother Nature stepped in and declared a free day, where making cocoa and art projects and watching movies supplanted regular schoolwork. Now they feel like they are about to be part of a bygone era, finding the same fate as single-room schoolhouses and projectors.

Most schools pushed to provide every student with a computer and internet access this school year. And, as we all learned last March, those devices and systems can, at least temporarily, turn a bedroom into a classroom, even if a storm is swirling outside.

So, are snow days now just a thing of the past? Not so fast, said Ben Horsley, spokesperson for the Granite School District.

Horsley noted that school provides more than an education for many students. Closing the building for some kids means depriving them of two of their daily meals, a warm building or a safe place while their parents work, he said. So he expects Granite will keep its schools open and operating whenever possible.

That doesn’t mean they won’t have other options. Among them is reviving the hybrid class, where those who choose to stay home can still attend and participate in classes via video conferencing.

“We’ve always leaned toward opening and making sure our buildings are accessible. I anticipate that will be the same in the future,” Horsely said. “But for those who do choose to stay home, I anticipate if not a full distance day, at least a partial distance day.”

The silver lining may be that parents won’t have to make that decision very often. The last time Granite called a snow day was last February, he said, and that was its first in more than two decades.

How about masks and keeping things clean?

There’s still a lot “up in the air” for next school year, including which students will be able to get vaccinated for COVID-19, and how variants of the virus may change over the coming months, Horsley said. But he sees some changes that could last.

Last year, Granite made its own all-natural disinfectant cleaner, available to teachers. That was a long-term investment that will be sticking around, Horsley said. Regular hand-washing and hand sanitizer will also still be prevalent, he said.

The increased cleaning protocols during the pandemic have created a “strain” in terms of finances and on the staff who have to carry them out, according to Horsley. The district will look at what’s needed in the future as the science on how COVID-19 spreads continues to be updated, he said. Granite also will study what worked, and didn’t, during distance learning, he said, to better help students learn going forward.

Horsley also expects that some teachers and students will choose to wear masks at school, and “they would be welcome to do so,” he said. According to Horsley, “there’s something to be said” about the potential effects masks and other health protocols have on preventing other illnesses beyond COVID-19, as the district noticed fewer cases of the flu over the last year.

“It was my healthiest school year ever,” said Deborah Gatrell, who teaches at Hunter High in Granite District.

Gatrell said she hopes it will continue to be “socially acceptable” for people to wear masks, if they want to. And while she hopes some of the extra precautions, like dividers on tables, won’t be necessary in the future, simple things like washing hands and keeping things clean could still help.

JoAnne Brown, who teaches at Olympus Junior High in Salt Lake County, said she would like mask use to continue, especially when illnesses tend to spread in winter. But she thinks that once people don’t have to wear them anymore, they won’t.

Like Gatrell and Horsley, Brown has noticed fewer people getting sick with the common cold. She always keeps her classroom stocked with tissues, she said, and during the winter, she usually has to replace her supply about once a week. This year, though, it’s lasted a couple of months.

Brown said she thinks teachers will be “pretty vigilant” about wiping down desks and sanitizing things in the future. “A lot of things came out of that pandemic,” Dunford agrees, “are here to stay.”