Kathleen Riebe: Some ideas to help Utah schools reopen safely

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Hillcrest Junior High School, closed on Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

Utah schools are preparing to reopen four and a half months after our first diagnosed case of COVID-19. Utah families are closely watching cases grow. We are months, possibly a year, away from a viable vaccine Families are fearful of the risks and the potential long term effects of sending their kids to school.

As a parent and teacher, I understand the desire to return to the classroom. I miss my students. My kids miss their teachers and their classmates. We need to support working families who rely on our schools by opening our schools carefully.

Care facilities and areas where groups are clustered together are hotbeds for spreading this disease. Face shields, face masks and hand sanitizer are all essential but as in the past essential items such as pencils and tissues are not always provided at the rate needed.

Class size is an immediate concern. To maintain appropriate social distancing, we will need to place significantly fewer students in each classroom. Areas with lower incomes and higher numbers of racial and ethnic minority students are already dealing with disproportionately higher case rates of COVID-19. These families have fewer opportunities to stay at home creating larger classes in our highly impacted areas.

The challenges don’t end there: How will we address changing classes and moving students safely through hallways. How will lunches be handled? How will we address collecting materials from students and dealing with shared student materials such as lab equipment?

These are just a few of the problems that we face in attempting to open schools in the midst of a worsening pandemic. I believe, though, that if you’re going to point out a problem, you should be willing to bring solutions to the table. In that spirit, here are some possible solutions for the challenges we face:

In order to defeat COVID-19, we must be innovative and flexible. We can start by implementing schedules that reduce the number of students who will be present in the building at a time. Some school districts are looking at dividing students into morning and afternoon shifts, others are considering alternate days for students. We need to further explore these ideas and find the solutions that will work in each school district and in every school. Not all schools are the same and a one-size-fits-all approach will be disastrous for some.

Students with individualized educational plans and 504s need to have their educational goals maintained. As a small proportion of the student base, we can properly protect them and their teachers while giving them the support they need so that they don’t fall further behind.

If we are going to push forward with large numbers of students returning to classrooms, we should consider installing infrastructure that can protect students and teachers alike. Plexiglass dividers are an idea, other solutions may be out there, but we need to have a conversation about how best to prepare our classrooms.

Finally, we should consider allowing high-risk teachers to work remotely. These teachers could provide online support to the in-person teacher. This would maximize the time teachers are working in the classroom to address the numerous other issues they will face while attempting to run a classroom in the middle of a pandemic.

As a teacher, I believe that schools work best when we are innovative, creative, flexible, and kind. Our responsibility should be to meet the child and the family where they are, to get the resources they need to them in a way that is safe, accessible, and equitable. I believe Utah schools excelled at working together to go online during the closure. Let’s excel again.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah state Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, is shown with two Granite School District students: Camila Soriano, 9, and her brother, Isaac Soriano, 7.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, represents District 8 in the Utah Senate and is an educational technology specialist at Robert Frost Elementary and Olene Walker Elementary.