These two Utah school districts took opposite paths when the pandemic hit

Juab says it “took care of kids,” while Wasatch says it “didn’t change anything.” Here’s how that affected learning in the two districts.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students in a second grade class at Heber Valley Elementary School in Heber City on Wednesday, July 5, 2023.

On an unforgettable Friday afternoon in mid-March 2020, Utah officials ordered a “soft close” of all public schools in response to the developing coronavirus pandemic.

Districts handed out printed packets of school work or started trying to figure how to teach online for two weeks, with hopes of returning in person by the end of the month. But classrooms stood empty until autumn.

And as they reopened, closed for outbreaks, and reopened again, a tale of two school districts emerged.

Juab School District, which stretches west from the foothills of the Wasatch Front and the towns of Mona, Nephi and Levan into sagebrush flatlands, prioritized the well-being and safety of its students.

“We took care of our kids,” said Royd Darrington, assistant superintendent for Juab Schools. “I’ll be honest, academics was not at the forefront of what we were pushing our teachers to push to their students. It really wasn’t. It was, how do we build a sense of community?”

Less than 100 miles northeast, in the mountain valley towns of Heber City and Midway, the Wasatch School District kept the pressure on academics.

“We were very specific and very intentional that our academic goals did not change one bit throughout the pandemic,” said Paul Sweat, superintendent of Wasatch Schools. “We had this attitude, this goal, throughout the pandemic, that our kids weren’t going to suffer, that we weren’t going to say, ‘Oh, it’s okay because we’re in this crisis.’”

Today, these districts have the highest and lowest learning losses in the state, according to an analysis by researchers from Harvard and Stanford universities, dubbed the Education Recovery Scorecard. The study provided the first nationwide district-level analysis of learning loss for grades three through eight.

While Wasatch District students gained two months of progress in math and reading compared to their same-age peers in 2019, Juab students lost roughly a year of ground in both subjects, according to the analysis.

And that finding tracks with Utah data, which shows, for example, that third through 10th graders in Juab District had among the state’s greatest learning losses in Language Arts from 2019 to 2022. The steepest loss — a 34.1% decline — was seen in the Tintic School District, on the western side of Juab County.

Wasatch District students had the state’s second-highest gain, behind only Rich School District, with a 7.2% increase, in northern Utah’s Rich County.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A student doing math in a July class offered by the Wasatch School District at Heber Valley Elementary School in Heber City.

Disparities between school districts, the national scorecard suggests, can typically be attributed to two key factors: First, districts that closed longer during the 2020-21 school year experienced more significant learning losses. Second, districts with higher poverty rates also suffered greater losses.

But on paper, Juab and Wasatch are similar small districts, though Wasatch is larger, with roughly 3,300 students in grades three through eight, compared to Juab’s 1,200. Both have about one-third of their students considered to be at the poverty level, according to the national scorecard, and both remained open for in-person learning during the 2020-21 school year.

Thomas Kane, director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard and co-researcher for the study, said some factors that may have contributed to disparities in learning loss — like a district’s approach to education at the time — remain underresearched.

Overall, Utah schools reopened relatively quickly compared to other states, research by the Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah shows, and the state’s learning losses were less than some states. Still, Utah’s average statewide proficiency rates in English, math, and science for grades three to 10 fell from 2019 to 2021, and in 2022, they were still below prepandemic levels.

That translates to a loss of about three months in math and and three months in reading over the course of the pandemic, according to the Education Recovery Scorecard. Most U.S. districts lost an average of a half year in math and a quarter of a year in reading.

Wasatch and Juab district leaders said they don’t regret their choices; they did what they believed best for their students and communities at the time.

Juab: ‘A perfect storm’

In 2019, Juab’s math and reading proficiency rates were the best they’d ever been, Darrington said. Then scores nosedived.

“We fell off a cliff,” Darrington said. “Our kids really took a huge hit during COVID.”

Among the 35 Utah school districts included in the Education Recovery Scorecard, Juab lost the most ground compared to where it was in 2019 — though that does not mean Juab also has the lowest proficiency rates.

For example, the San Juan School District lost a little over four months in reading, while Juab lost nine months. But currently, 34.5% of Juab’s K-8 students are at or above grade level expectations in reading, compared to 30% of San Juan students, according to 2022 state data.

This means that while San Juan experienced smaller losses, the district was further behind in reading scores before the pandemic began.

Juab had reached a performance peak— and it was a long way down.

“A couple of things happened right as COVID hit,” Darrington said. “One, we were right in the middle of a leadership change at the district level.”

In April 2020, Juab’s former superintendent Rick Robins moved over to Canyons School District. Two months later, the Juab school board appointed Kodey Hughes as Robins’ replacement.

More personnel changes followed. New principals took over at three of the district’s five schools and an unprecedented number of veteran teachers left or retired in spring 2020.

“It was the perfect storm,” Darrington said.

By the fall semester, nearly half the jobs held by the district’s seasoned workforce had been left vacant or filled by teachers who were new to the profession.

“It put a tremendous toll on our teachers, and again, they’re new teachers and we were asking them to do the impossible,” Darrington said. “There was no roadmap.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Crippen family, from Nephi, has five children in the Juab School District. District leaders allowed students and families more flexibility during the pandemic.

To create that roadmap, Juab, like most school districts, turned to parents and the surrounding community. While opinions varied, most parents asked school leaders to give their children a sense of normalcy.

“One thing that we really leaned into happily was the mental health side of COVID,” Darrington said. “We actually made a decision to focus on our students’ well-being and really making sure that our teachers were making solid connections with our students.”

Juab ensured students had access to counselors and provided home visits for families when needed. Fridays became “passion project” days, when students and their parents came to school and delved into anything of interest to them, academic or otherwise.

Darrington said the district’s approach did pull away from academics, but when viewed through a “2020 lens,” student belonging took precedence.

“Looking back, people could say, ‘Well, this led to a part of your learning loss because you were spending so much time encouraging your teachers to just talk to their students and engage their students and build relationships,’” Darrington said. “And that’s what we were doing.”

Charlotte Crippen, a parent to five children attending Juab Schools, said while her children didn’t fall behind, she’s surprised the district overall experienced such losses.

“Instead of cutting out curriculum, they made and found solutions for making it work, which I really appreciated because I felt like the kids really needed that,” Crippen said. “We have great teachers who are totally invested. I feel like our teachers went above and beyond to stay connected to our kids individually, staying connected to us as parents and offering lots of different options for learning.”

District leaders allowed students and families more flexibility during the pandemic. That meant offering in-person and remote learning options but also working with each individual student to meet their needs.

“We had from 100% online to 100% in school and everything in between,” Darrington said. “We were probably one of the more flexible districts in what we were trying to allow our students and parents to choose.”

He said he believes flexibility paid off in that the district didn’t lose students to homeschooling or charters, but it also caused students to fall behind.

“I think the learning loss itself had a lot to do with our efforts to really try to provide flexibility and maintain connections with all of our students in that year,” Darrington said. “We tried to be everything for everyone. And looking back, we ended up being less than what we could have been for most.”

Wasatch: ‘Determined to not lower that bar’

North of Juab, a different reality was unfolding.

Wasatch has always fostered a culture of academic rigor and, perhaps, a little competitive spirit.

“We’re very committed to being one of the highest-performing districts in the state,” Superintendent Paul Sweat said. “It’s very important to us that our [proficiency] percentages are as high or higher, as we compare ourselves to others around the state and around the country.”

When the world shut down, their stance on excellence never wavered.

“When a crisis like that hits, I think one of the biggest things you’re tempted to do is lower the bar for kids,” said Garrick Peterson, director of teaching and learning for Wasatch. “Our teachers were very determined to not lower that bar.”

Throughout the pandemic, district leaders also insisted on keeping schools open.

“We stayed in school every possible day that we could,” Sweat said. “When we came back to school in the fall, we tried to keep school as normal as possible.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Owens family, from Heber City, has children in the Wasatch School District. They weighed sending them back in person for the 2020-21 school year.

Wasatch parent Penny Owens said she was grateful schools stayed open and for the academic pressure. Consistency in her children’s education made life feel more “normal.”

“With church being so different, friend group gatherings being so different, even Thanksgiving at home being different, it was so great to know that they had that academic push still,” Owens said. “It was one of the few things that brought normalcy back to my children’s lives.”

During the pandemic, two of Owens’ three children attended Daniels Canyon Elementary School. When deciding whether or not to send them back to school in person — families were given the option of remote learning — Owens strongly considered the mental impact a virtual education might have on her young children.

“As we went back and forth, my husband and I, we ultimately gave our daughter the option to stay home and she just broke down in tears,” Owens said. “I knew that for (my children’s) development, it was everything for them to go back. And, so, we made that decision, and it was great for us.”

To support teachers, the district invested some of its $6.2 million COVID-19 relief dollars in professional development, conferences and other training.

“The greatest factor that’s going to affect learning is always the teachers,” Peterson said. “And we used that money to get our teachers really, really good at the basics of teaching and working together collaboratively.”

In the end, there were no overall learning setbacks in Wasatch schools. Instead, students gained two months of progress in math and reading. And Owens and district leaders attribute those learning gains to teachers.

“They were determined that kids were going to learn on grade level, and they just went at it,” Peterson said. “They figured out ways to provide additional support for those kids that were struggling, but a lot of it was being really determined that we were going to keep the bar where the bar was for the kids.”

Sweat said one of the reasons he believes Wasatch students came out of the pandemic stronger is because the district stayed the course. “We didn’t change anything,” Sweat said. “Our learning targets, our learning goals, all the academic guidelines and goals that we had in place stayed exactly the same.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Wasatch School District invested some of its $6.2 million COVID-19 relief dollars in professional development, conferences and other training.

Juab’s new challenges

When the 2020-21 school year ended, the learning losses in the Juab District were evident.

“We went to work like everybody else did, trying to figure out, okay, moving forward, how do we start closing gaps?” Darrington said. “The second year, we got better.”

The district began offering tutoring and summer school. “We did summer school the last two summers,” Darrington said. “The problem is getting the students that you need to be there is really hard.”

Over the past two years, the district has also provided after-school tutoring, remediation programs and purchased resources for families to use at home.

Helping students catch up is a long game, Darrington said. “Now, it’s not about what caused it. The conversation is forward facing. It’s what do we do to keep supporting those students?”

Juab will continue relying on data to identify students who need intervention. But the strategy going forward is encouraging parent involvement.

“One of our major focuses going is to be able to reach out and partner with our parents to help them understand where students are at and when their students are behind that their students are behind,” Darrington said.

Getting students up to speed won’t happen overnight, Darrington said, and requires the entire community.

“We need their support, just as much as the students need the school’s support,” he said. “Parents are a valuable partner in this process. And it’s on us as a school district to make sure that we get parents to the table and provide them with really good data and then viable solutions.”