San Juan School Board finalizes plans for start of year

San Juan County School Board finalized plans ahead of the start of the academic school year later this month.

Key items passed include 100 percent remote learning for students in the south part of the county for the start of the year. The district moved the first day of school for students from Thursday August 20, to Monday August 24. Also for schools open for in-person learning, a 90-minute block of time will be set aside for teacher preparation.

--River Region Schools--

Superintendent Ron Nielson reported to the board that 90-95 percent of survey results and registration from parents preferred at-home learning in the River Region of the district. Students who attend schools from Bluff all the way to Navajo Mountain will receive distance learning provided by their teachers, at least through the first quarter of the school year. Nielson says the decision matches recommendations made by Navajo Nation President Nez and local chapter leaders.

“So when we saw the support was unified, I feel that now with that much support in that area, it is my recommendation that we move the whole regions to 100 percent virtual. We will work individually with those few parents that may have selected in-person to try to help them understand what drove that change.”

The district will also suspend programs that bus up to 100 students from the river region to the public schools in Blanding. Nielson says the decision also had support from chapter leaders.

“It didn’t make sense to bring students out of that region to this region in-person. There are other things that played in as well, such as curfews, activities that would possibly violate curfews in place. This recommendation in essence would say those students are virtual as well, because they’re in that region. This is not saying those buses in any way are not going to continue long term, they would continue.”

As part of distance learning efforts, the district is continuing to work to bring internet connectivity to the southern part of San Juan County. The district is supportive of the fiber project that would bring internet connectivity into towns south of Blanding. The project is currently waiting on finalizing right-of-way agreements with the Ute Mountain tribe through White Mesa. Another connectivity project is providing WIFI hotspots to homes of students in the district. A final project under consideration would bring extended local area networks to provide filtered, low-speed internet to the communities surrounding local schools.

The program would install radio receivers in homes that could pick up signals at a distance from towers on or near SJSD schools. A bid for the project came in at $3.95 million, with yearly maintenance costing between $172,000 and $345,000 a year, depending on the level of service. While the district has not budgeted funds for the project, with bids in hand they are hopeful to receive aid through the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), the CARES Act, and other entities that have previously offered to support internet connectivity projects. School board member Nelson Yellowman pointed out the Navajo Nation has also set aside $90 million to help enable distance learning.

Nielson also reports there is a growing number of students in the River Region who have been unable to participate in Drivers Ed. The district is exploring options of how to possibly implement Drivers Ed in schools in the southern portion of the district.

---Mountain Region Schools---

Schools throughout the entire district will revise their daily schedule to create a 90-minute time block for teachers to complete the increased responsibilities related to both in-person and virtual teaching.

Schools with in-person instruction will have to either implement a late start or an early dismissal to accommodate the 90 minutes of teacher prep time.

The board weighed the merits of a 9 a.m. start time with 3:30 p.m. release vs an 8 a.m. start time with a 2:30 p.m. release. Ultimately the board moved to leave that decision in the hands of the school administration based on surveys from parents and teachers. Parents can expect to receive the survey from the district soon. Nielson indicated he’d like a decision to be made as early as Tuesday, August 18.

In either a late start or early dismissal, middle schools and high schools in the district will see school periods decrease in length by about five minutes on most days.

Schools in the Mountain Region will begin with in-person instruction. One recommendation approved by the board moves the student return date from Thursday, August 20, to Monday, August 24. The move gives teachers and staff at schools in Blanding, Monticello and La Sal, two additional days to receive training and prepare for the school year during a pandemic.

Students and staff at school will be required to wear a face covering. In anticipation of in-person learning, the school district has ordered two neck gaiters for each student in the district. A recent study by Duke University showed that cloth masks can be nearly as effective as surgical masks. The study does however call into question the effectiveness of neck gaiters and even suggest gaiters may be worse than no covering.

The school district is working closely with the County Health Department to evaluate the use of the gaiters.

While the gaiters would be given out at no cost to students, the district does not require students wear the school-issued gaiters, only a face covering of some sort is required.

---Athletics and Activities----

The school district moved to cancel all sports and extracurricular activities in all regions or schools placed 100 percent in virtual instruction delivery, meaning no sports for Navajo Mountain, Whitehorse or Monument Valley high schools while distance learning is in effect.

Sports and extracurricular activities can occur at schools that offer in-person instruction, but if the school temporarily moves to virtual learning those activities will be suspended for as long as school-wide virtual learning is in place. For example, if a school-wide quarantine was issued to Monticello High School for 14 days, no sports would take place during that time of temporary quarantine.

Additionally in accordance with orders by Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s orders, all students, coaches, and spectators at indoor sports will be required to wear masks throughout the fall season.

Face coverings will also be required of all student/adult participants who attend sports at outdoor facilities throughout the fall season, meaning coaches and players on the sidelines will be required to wear masks. Logical exceptions apply for players and runners actively participating in their sport.

Spectators at outdoor sports events are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings, but they are not required. Additionally the district ruled to eliminate concession stand services at all sponsored events throughout the fall sports season.

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