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New normal for Utah schools means online instruction, grab-and-go meals, reassuring students

SHARE New normal for Utah schools means online instruction, grab-and-go meals, reassuring students

Alex Haslam, assistant facilities manager for Midvale Middle School, uses an electrostatic sprayer to disinfect surfaces in the school on Monday, March 16, 2020. On Friday Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and state health and education officials closed schools for two weeks to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

MIDVALE — After its all-hands-on-deck effort to emerge from academic turnaround the past few years, the faculty of Midvale Elementary School knows how to face a challenge.

Still, the two-week “soft closure” of Utah public schools ordered by Gov. Gary Herbert and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson is unchartered territory for most educators.

“We’re just going to have to do whatever we need to do to make it through the next few weeks,” said Midvale Elementary School Principal Denzil “Chip” Watts, addressing the school’s faculty.

On Monday, Midvale Elementary teachers and administrators were scattered across the school cafeteria to observe social distance and to take part in an unconventional faculty meeting to address how the Title I school will meet the academic, emotional and physical needs of its students while Utah observes at least a two-week dismissal intended to slow down the spread of COVID-19.

“Obviously there are a lot of things we’ll just be figuring out as we go, so thank you for being flexible and rolling with it,” said Watts.

To help boost morale, the school hosted a drawing among faculty members. The winner received a coronavirus survival kit that included highly sought after toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Teachers across Utah are preparing lessons to upload on online platforms or paper packets that students can work on at home.

At Midvale Elementary, some teachers also volunteered to help pass out sack lunches that school nutrition workers are preparing in place of prepared meals.

One teacher asked if was OK to drop off instructional packets to her students’ homes because they might not have a ride to school to pick it up themselves. She got the thumbs up.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me to put together these learning materials and not be able to give them to kids because parents aren’t able to pick them up or whatever or kids can’t walk here alone,” Watts said.

Second grade teacher Jill Oaks said she is striving to help her students feel connected and engaged during the soft closure. By end of day Tuesday, teachers are expected to have their lessons ready to go home with students on Wednesday or accessible online.

Even Crusty, a bearded dragon that is Oaks’ classroom’s pet, will play a role, she said.

Crusty is staying at Oaks’ home and she plans to regularly post photographs of him on a Facebook page during the dismissal.

“He’s much loved so just to keep that school relationship going — because for a lot of our students that’s really important,” she said.

Oaks, who is one of several working parents at the school, said her children are teens and one tween so they don’t require child care, “which is OK but not awesome because they are home alone.”

Ordinarily, her youngest child, who is 12, spends time with grandparents, but people over 60 are more vulnerable to COVID-19 so Oaks is reluctant to put them at any additional risk.

“We have to balance teaching, getting things ready for our students and then, being a parent, helping our own kids with all their online learning. That’s going to be a challenge. I want to keep my own kids involved while supporting my students. It’s just a really weird dynamic,” she said.

There are a lot of unknowns, Oaks said. For the time being, schools are planning for a two-week dismissal but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says lengthier dismissals are more effective at slowing down the spread of COVID-19.

Just as Utah students get the hang of distance learning, schools will be observing spring break. Canyons District’s break is scheduled April 6-10.

Oaks said she has concerns about continuity of learning for both her students and her own children.

It is particularly concerning at Midvale Elementary, which has labored to emerge from turnaround status.

Statewide testing is coming up and Midvale teachers are concerned how the disrupted education program will impact their students, especially as “we have really good momentum,” Oaks said.

“Even as a teacher, I am not great at teaching my own kids. They don’t love learning from me. Our parents, I’m sure, are going to do the best they can,” she said.

The school serves more than 770 students preschool through fifth grade. Twenty two percent of the school’s students are homeless, 45% are English learners and 100% are economically disadvantaged.

Aside from its educational program, Midvale students rely on the school for stability, nurturing and their meals.

To that end, Midvale Elementary School’s food service employees were assembling grab-and-go lunches for students to pick up Monday.

“The biggest challenge has been to just get ready over the weekend with sack lunches and make sure the kids have nutritious meals today to go home with,” said Canyons director of nutrition services Sebasthian Varas.

This district is switching to a summer foods model and basing its preparations off numbers of meals it provides during summer months.

While Midvale Elementary School ordinarily serves breakfast and lunch to about 700 students, it was preparing 250 to 300 sack lunches Monday, along with some other food in case demand was higher. Counts in summer are much lower because people vacation or do not otherwise come to the school.

But this is March and the school’s families may be otherwise pinched for food as working parents, many of whom work in service industries, experience closure of their workplaces.

“This is a whole different circumstance. We don’t’ know what to expect, really. We’re just doing our best guess,” Varas said.

Midvale Middle School Principal Mindy Robinson led her faculty meeting in the school auditorium, where teachers literally sat rows apart to observe social distancing guidelines.

Robinson’s message to her staff was to take care of themselves and to prepare their student lessons online and in paper packets to accommodate families that don’t have devices or internet connections.

The school is also sending home books and other reading materials, she said. To help address students’ other needs, the social and emotional learning team is calling families at home to answer their questions, refer them to resources and just check in.

Robinson’s charge to her faculty on Monday “was just the basics for the day: ‘Take care of themselves. Take care of their students. Consider the things that can work. We’re getting paid and our students are actually supported by us.’

“They have a lot of work ahead of them the next two days. They’re trying to get everything as fully online as possible plus packets for every area so it’s a lot of work.”

As Canyons District pushes forward to assist families during the statewide school dismissal closure ordered by state officials on Friday, it is important that students do their part by doing their assigned school work so it can be counted as instructional time, said Canyons District spokesman Jeff Haney.

“I do think it is important to know that this isn’t just an extended spring recess,” he said.