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State School Board to meet via video to consider attendance waiver over pandemic

The Utah State Board of Education’s office in Salt Lake City.
The Utah State Board of Education’s office in Salt Lake City.
Jordan Allred

SALT LAKE CITY — Ordinarily, the 15-member Utah State Board of Education meets monthly in person at its offices at 250 E. 500 South.

These aren’t ordinary times. Nor are some of the items on the board’s agenda for Thursday typical of what it normally considers.

The agenda includes considering a statewide waiver of a portion of the board’s school attendance rule, which requires a minimum of 180 days and 990 hours of instruction each school year.

The board rule considers pandemic — such as the current fears over COVID-19 — or other public health emergency an acceptable rationales for waivers. Customarily, school districts or charter schools seek attendance waivers themselves but since this was a statewide directive the board will consider a blanket waiver request.

More commonly, the requests are made for weather or school fires that interrupt operations, and the board largely delegates those decisions to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson.

The board will also consider partial waiver of another rule to ensure transportation money continues to flow to schools because districts aren’t logging minutes and miles on buses during the “soft closure” of Utah public schools. Typically, districts are reimbursed for those minutes and miles.

“We’re just trying to make it as normal as possible for business people so they can make things as normal as possible for employees,” said board spokesman Mark Peterson, acknowledging schools are enduring far from normal circumstances.

Utah’s nearly 667,000 public school students, who comprise one-fifth of the state’s population, are not coming to school but are expected to complete lessons sent home by their district or charter school. Schools remain open to provide instructional support to students and provide to-go meals to those who need them.

As previously announced, the dismissal will last until at least March 27 and will be reevaluated. Dickson is scheduled to update the board on the state’s actions on COVID-19.

Elsewhere in the country, education commissioners are cautioning that schools could remain closed the remainder of the academic year.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests school closures of eight weeks or more may have a greater impact on mitigating the spread of COVID-19 than two- to four-week closures.

While one or two State School Board members occasionally participate in the board’s meeting remotely when they cannot attend in person, Thursday’s meeting will be conducted via video conference with board Chairman Mark Huntsman and Vice Chairwoman Brittney Cummins participating from the board’s meeting room and the rest of the members taking part online.

Members of the public will be allowed in the building to observe the meeting, but to comply with new federal social distancing recommendations that people gather in groups 10 or smaller, the meeting can be watched on YouTube at youtube.com/channel/UCg-kOfWXxl9d6nQBUh6S2Cg/featured.

The state board is also overseer of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind. That board meeting has been canceled on Friday.

Meanwhile, State School Board’s committee meetings will be held online Friday, and conducted consecutively instead of simultaneously, which is the schedule board committees observe when members meet in person.

Statewide testing is also on the board’s agenda:

“Due to the extraordinary circumstances as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic ... the Utah State Board of Education will be considering the implications ... on federal and state requirements for administering assessments and the resulting school accountability determinations,” the agenda states

The board will also consider a report by a board panel that heard an appeal of the State Charter School Board’s decision to terminate the charter of Capstone Classical Academy in Pleasant View, Weber County.