What does education in Utah look like, post-pandemic?

For 24 years, Ami Anderson’s professional headquarters was her Jordan School District elementary school classroom where she taught third grade and later, fourth along Utah’s Wasatch Front.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic and last spring’s shuttering of schools, which meant Anderson, along with educators across the country, made a sudden pivot to virtual teaching to finish the school year.

This past fall, Anderson excitedly planned to resume teaching in person. Three days before the start of the school year, she was asked to teach third grade virtually with the district’s online elementary program.

“Spring online was difficult. I have a technology background so I was able to figure it out, but still, it was difficult. So when I started this position this year, I had the intention of doing it this year and that would be the extent of it,” she said.

But as time went on, Anderson learned more about using technology to teach her students and the best ways to engage them.

Children learn differently. Some are hands-on learners, some are verbal learners while others are book learners. “We have learners that this is the best way for them to learn,” which was something that Anderson said was an exciting discovery.

After teaching in a traditional classroom for more than two decades, Anderson said by teaching online, she grew professionally.

Instead of returning to a traditional classroom next fall, she will teach for Jordan School District’s new Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary School, an online school that will also offer in-person learning opportunities two days a week.

“I felt like I’ve been learning so much this year that I wanted to carry it over next year. I want to start helping build this foundation at Rocky Peak,” she said.

While this would appear to be the logical “next step” emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, school district spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf said the schools were in the planning stages well before most people had heard about the coronavirus, or fretted over toilet paper supplies or had even heard of the term “social distancing.”

But the pandemic sped up the urgency to open Kings Peak High School, Kelsey Peak Virtual Middle School and Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary School. The three will comprise the Jordan Virtual Learning Academy.

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Ross Menlove, incoming principal of Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary, said parents want options for their children, which became abundantly clear during the pandemic.

Last fall, there was such a big spike in applications to public charter schools that solely offer virtual instruction that the State School Board raised enrollment caps to accommodate demand at Utah Virtual Academy and Utah Connections Academy.

Ross Menlove, left, and Ami Anderson pose for a portrait in front of Majestic Elementary, which will house Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary School next year, in West Jordan on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Menlove is principal of the future Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary and also a current administrator of the Jordan School District online elementary program. Anderson currently teaches students in the Jordan School District online elementary program and will teach at Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary next school year. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

About 5,000 of Jordan School District’s 56,100 students started this school year with online learning, although about 1,000 of them returned to traditional classrooms over the course of the school year after some families realized in-person instruction was a better fit for their child, Menlove said.

While some households preferred that their children study at home this year due to health concerns, others want flexibility to accommodate their children’s activities.

“I was talking to a mother the other day who signed her daughter up because she’s a professional ski racer — in sixth grade. They need the flexibility. So half the year they’re going to do the core instruction with the teacher and half the year without,” Menlove said.

At Rocky Peak, all core instruction will be taught virtually, but students will also have the option to attend in-person instruction two days a week in PE, music, social studies, robotics or hands-on science experiments, “in essence, electives for elementary kids,” he explained.

The virtual schools will operate similarly to neighborhood schools in the respect that they’ll have school colors, mascots, principals, special education services, counselors, school community councils, back-to-school nights and even PTA fundraisers and service projects. “You know, just full-out school, but we have that flexibility,” Menlove said.

The district’s plan is that students can attend Jordan School District’s virtual schools from kindergarten through high school graduation without ever entering the physical doors of a school.

“There’s families that want flexibility. There’s families that want to travel. Families want to do unique things. There are families that want to go to school only half day. Let’s provide it. There’s no reason we can’t,” Menlove said.

Students take notes as they attend Mallory Record’s Advanced Placement government and comparative politics class at Jordan High School in Sandy on Wednesday, March 10, 2021. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Updated state attendance rule

Under State School Board rule, Utah schools have been required to conduct school a minimum of 180 days and provide a minimum of 990 hours of instruction annually.

Last year, due to changes in school operations necessitated by the pandemic, the state board changed the rule to say the 990-hour requirement referred to hours of providing “educational services” rather than instruction. It also temporarily shelved the daily hour minimum of two hours in kindergarten and four hours in grades 1 through 12.

On Thursday, the board approved changes to the pupil accounting rule by eliminating the requirement for 990 hours of educational services for the 2021-22 school year, but kept the 180 days of instruction intact.

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Rick Robins, superintendent of the Canyons School District, said he supported taking another look at the rule, which was enacted to prioritize instructional time, but may need to be updated in the face of teaching and learning options spurred along by the pandemic.

“The pandemic ushered in an opportunity to take a hard look at all of these practices that maybe for their time, were very effective. Maybe it’s an opportunity to repurpose and think new about about some of these practices,” he said.

It is also a time for schools to reexamine “the traditional methodology of how we think about learning or assessing learning. We know that students learn at different paces, and I would suggest that as an education community, as a school community, that we start thinking about things like mastery or standards-based grading in a way that really emphasizes that process and really emphasizes that the student’s needs are met where they’re at on an individual basis,” Robins said.

Mallory Record teaches an Advanced Placement government and comparative politics class at Jordan High School in Sandy on Wednesday, March 10, 2021. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Utah Legislature’s emphasis on in-person instruction

Utah lawmakers, in the recently concluded general session, passed SB107, which places a priority on in-person instruction in Utah’s K-12 public schools and state-supported colleges and universities.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, requires the Utah Department of Health to support widespread “Test to Stay” COVID-19 testing protocols in public schools.

Test to Stay” is intended to keep schools operating in-person to the greatest extent possible by excluding students who test positive and allowing students who test negative to continue to attend school in person.

This past year many Utah schools have pivoted their entire student bodies to online learning when the school exceeded recommended case thresholds or when so many teachers were under quarantine due to coronavirus exposure or in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 that the school could not hire a sufficient number of substitutes to cover their classes.

SB107 also calls on Utah’s state-supported colleges and universities this fall to offer at least 75% of the number of in-person courses they offered during the fall 2019 semester at their respective institutions.

It is unclear how the legislation will impact schools as numbers of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to drop and numbers of vaccinated Utahns rises. More than 900,000 doses of vaccine have been administered in Utah thus far.

But nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges caution about the possible impacts of new strains of the coronavirus that are more contagious than the type circulating now.

Students take notes in Mallory Record’s Advanced Placement government and comparative politics class at in Sandy, Utah.
Students take notes in Mallory Record’s Advanced Placement government and comparative politics class at Jordan High School in Sandy on Wednesday, March 10, 2021. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Teaching is a human endeavor

One lasting lesson from the pandemic is that “teaching and learning is a human endeavor,” said Robins of the Canyons District.

“I don’t think we can underestimate just how powerful that relationship and that connection is through the entire pandemic to this point. We’ve really seen just how critical in nature it is that our students have that connection, he said.

“I think first and foremost we’ve learned just how important ... teachers and educators and staff really are and the role that they play in our students’ lives are just absolutely critical to their future success.”

But this isn’t to say that those connections are completely reliant on traditional classroom instruction.

Five years ago, Canyons School District was inducted into the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, which recognizes some of the nation’s most innovative and forward-thinking school models.

Prior to his selection as Canyons superintendent last spring, Robins was superintendent of Juab School District, which in 2018 was honored by the National School Boards Association’s Center for Digital Education. So Robins is no stranger to the evolving instructional landscape.

“I firmly believe that heading into this fourth industrial revolution, per se, that tech integration into teaching and learning will become part of our fabric and our DNA,” Robins said.

Moving forward, Robins predicts an “upward trend of schools utilizing technology to embrace and enhance opportunities for students. I think that it is just going to be part of the education landscape and I think that’s what our parents and our students expect. That’s the world that they live in and want to be part of.”

Technology plays an important role in personalized learning, he said. A 2019 Education Week report says the aim of personalized learning is to “customize the learning experience for each student according to his or her unique skills, abilities, preferences, background and experiences.”

Or as Robins explains it, “The essence of that means that we meet students’ needs where they’re at.”

“Depending on a family circumstance or depending on where they’re at or what their specific needs are, technology has really become a great accelerator. It cannot replace a great teacher but it can certainly make a great teacher even better.”

Ami Anderson tests a third grader on his reading skills over a video call while working remotely from her home in Herriman on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Anderson currently teaches students in the Jordan School District online elementary program and will teach at Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary next school year. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Building community online, in person

Anderson said she’s discovered that her philosophy of teaching in person is the same as teaching virtually.

“You have to build classroom community. It is essential for students to feel a part of something. They need to feel like they are loved, that they are valued, that you know who they are and you know their needs and you’re there for them. It doesn’t matter if you’re in person, virtual, that’s across the board,” she said.

Second is student engagement, keeping her students on task and helping them understand that what they are learning applies to their “real-world life.”

As she incorporates activities to enhance her instruction, Anderson said it is a constant challenge to figure out how to provide that instruction digitally.

“Students need specific tools to be successful,” she said. For instance, Anderson recently taught her students about measurement and found that only about half of her students had a ruler at their house.

“It’s kind of hard to measure things if you don’t have a ruler,” she said.

Teaching students to tell time on a digital platform also proved to be a challenge. On a recent weekend, Anderson searched for hours to find a clock that would work on a virtual platform.

“I found one. It works, but it’s just not the same as having a clock in their hands that they can manipulate,” she said.

Next year, Anderson wants to send a tool kit to each of her students so they have hands-on tools to facilitate their learning.

Since Anderson’s online students don’t see her in person each day, she has visited them at their homes several times this school year.

“I’ve gotten to know the parents and the students definitely more on a personal level than I ever have. It’s rewarding, humbling and it is an eye-opener. But I’ve enjoyed it, and I’ve been able to make connections with my kids. They see that I have legs. I see that they have legs, too,” she said, explaining that they only see each other from chest up online.

Perhaps one of the biggest differences between teaching online and in person is that in a traditional classroom, Anderson shuts the door and goes about her teaching. Online, there is often an audience of parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles or other caregivers.

“The thing I have learned about online is you cannot be afraid to be in front of a camera and teach in front of people. If you do not have a solid backbone, this is not your type of teaching,” she said.

Anderson said she strives to do her job as well as she can, relying on the training and classroom management skills she’s refined over more than two decades of teaching. Remote instruction gives her “audience members” a glimpse of the rigors of her work.

“Do I mess up? Absolutely. Do the parents know I love the students? Absolutely,” she said.