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Carly Ferrin: Adapting our schools to COVID realities

(Victor R. Caivano | AP photo) In this Oct. 13 photo, a teacher leads a lesson outdoors at the school Hipólito Yrigoyen in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on the first day since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak that in-person classes in the capital for students in their last year of primary and secondary school were restarted, but outdoors. Argentina reached 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, according to the Ministry of Health.

As parents, students and school districts continue this school year to adjust to the ever-morphing presence of COVID-19 in Utah, we may consider this a rare opportunity to extend unique educational solutions to our children, and to examine the collective value of quality education for the whole state.

Some of the ideas we could talk about:

• When COVID-19 makes its presence known in a school population, rather than waiting for a full outbreak to occur, switch to online immediately, but send students to school once or twice a week in small groups for higher quality tutelage from their teachers.

• For walking-distance schools, do online school but arrange for classes to come to school on a staggered schedule for recess or physical education. Socialization is key for mental and emotional health and social development for children.

• Do online school four days a week, but have “outdoor school” once a week, where students come to school to learn outside. Art, play, PE, science, storytelling, team-building and other creative exercises could be done outside.

• Stagger school schedules between groups of students. One week online, one week in person. For working families for whom this creates a hardship, allow exceptions.

• Schools can organize students into home-school support groups, to connect their online students. This would especially help students who are new to the school or otherwise not well-connected, to help ensure we are not abandoning children to socially fend for themselves.

• For online elementary students, buy workbooks to send home. Written work is an important skill, and not all students have a printer or reliable internet access, so self-explanatory workbooks are a convenient supplement for busy parents who see their children lagging.

• Prioritize education funding. In 1946, Utah voters passed a constitutional amendment to designate all income taxes solely to education. In 1996, a constitutional amendment broadened the income tax funding to include higher education. In 2007, the Utah Legislature decreased the education-designated state income tax from nearly 7% to 5%. This November, Amendment G, if passed, would tap into income tax funding as well.

• Where COVID-19 gives young families educational challenges, those challenges are compounded for working families already living paycheck to paycheck, whose flexibility and resiliency are already limited. When prioritizing funding, focus on underserved and underfunded districts. The spread of the coronavirus highlights our interconnectedness. Our entire state suffers when children’s academic potential suffers, and when parents are unable to work and provide. Helping these families is an investment in our state. By ignoring their challenges, we are drawing from future resources — creating a debt.

• Don’t undervalue our teachers. All of our answers to the educational challenges right now rest on their shoulders. At the Dec. 9 meeting between the legislative Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force and the public, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore claimed, “This will be the third year in a row when our government has run a nine-figure surplus. Hundreds of millions of dollars.” Excess in education funding is an opportunity to recognize our educators. Teachers are the ones we rely on to make up the gap between an ideal education budget for our children and the reality. While a $5,000 bonus for teachers who stick it out through the end of the school year is nothing like an actual pay raise, it would put some substance behind our gratitude for these heroes.

Adaptation to COVID-related education challenges relies on adequate funding, and a little extra from parents, teachers, employers, neighbors and our legislators. Let’s not miss this moment to make a positive difference.

Carly Ferrin

Carly Ferrin, Saratoga Springs, is a stay-at-home mom with a daughter enrolled in online public school.

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