School board developing return-to-school plan

The San Juan School District is developing a plan to reopen local schools during the coronavirus pandemic and flexibility is the key, according to Superintendent Ron Nielson.

“We are trying to build plans, trying to build around flexibility, with individual input in every case,” said Nielson at the June 23 meeting of the school board. 

“It may look different for each student, with some learning in the home, some in the school, and it could change with a new outbreak.”

According to the State of Utah, local school districts need to approve a re-entry plan by August 1. Schools were closed for the entire fourth quarter of the past school year and instruction was delivered through home-based means.

The district recently sent a survey to seek input from teachers, parents, and stakeholders.

Nielson said the response was significant, with more than 800 returned surveys within three days.

“I think the survey accurately represents the general population,” said Nielson.  “And it is definitely telling us that stakeholders and parents in our two regions are looking at things differently.”

In the six “river region” schools that serve a population primarily on or near the Navajo Reservation, 63 percent of parents signaled that the schools should be “virtual / on-line only until the COVID-19 situation is over.”

In the six “mountain region” schools that serve communities in the northern portion of the county, 65 percent of parents signaled that “schools should reopen as close to normal as possible.” 

With the wide range of opinion, Nielson said the district is “working one on one with principals to develop plans with different schools.”

“I don’t know if we can have just one model. If we have an outbreak in a particular school, we have to be fluid.

You will have multiple flexible options to choose from and it will require a lot of parental flexibility.”

Board president Lori Maughan asked about the option of alternating students in the classroom every other day or every other week.

Maughan said parents generally support every other day, while teachers generally support every other week.

Nielson said the alternating schedules may not be necessary depending on how many students choose home-based instruction.

“In some schools, if 60 percent of students stay home, the classroom sizes will be very small, and we may not need to alternate,” explained Nielson. “These options are at the very bottom of our list.”

School board members discussed the challenges faced by the students, parents, and teachers.

Nelson Yellowman discussed how lack of running water, multiple generations living in a home, underlying health conditions, curfews, and general economic challenges complicate the situation.

“This is a monumental task,” explained Nielson. “We need to look at everything we do, from class transitions in the halls, to how kids will leave the cafeteria, to dealing with further outbreaks.”

The goal is to identify and plan for every “bottleneck area” in the entire system, including getting on the bus, entering the school, lunch lines, and use of playground equipment.

Nielson explained that a task force has been organized to look into various elements.

The district received $710,000 in COVID relief funding from the federal government. 

These funds could be used to purchase plexiglass, cleaning materials, non-touch thermometers, handwashing, equipment, and more.

In other matters, the school board honored Anna Fredericks, the director of Food Services, with the San Juan Sweet Job award.

When the schools were closed during the fourth quarter of the school year, Nielson said Fredericks and her staff “saw the monumental challenge, went to work, and worked hard.”

They served 5,000 meals a day and were able to feed 93 percent of the students in the river region schools.

“These are some of the most needy and impacted kids in the entire state,” said Nielson.

The school board approved a $41.9 million general fund budget and a $4.5 million capital outlay budget for the fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

The major capital project is the new Bluff Elementary School, which will open to students in the new school year.

The budget includes a 0.25 percent increase in salaries, along with steps and lanes for a 1.86 percent total increase in salaries.

Business Administrator Kyle Hosler explained that the budget process was long and drawn out due to the uncertainty caused by the public health crisis.

Hosler said he actually prepared seven versions of the budget before the final budget was approved. 

The state legislature approved a six percent increase in education funding before the pandemic.

After months of uncertainty, the legislature met and approved a 1.8 percent increase instead.

Hosler said he feared there could have been much greater cuts.

The state budget was cut in two areas, including $211,000 in administrative cuts and the elimination of a “flex allocation” from the state budget.

The district used a portion of the local tax levy to cover the state cuts. These funds had previously been allocated for capital projects.

Board member Steve Black discussed the balance between capital budgets and salaries for employees.

Nielson said reimbursing teachers is the highest priority. “We need to save for capital projects,” said Nielson, “but we need to keep salaries slightly ahead of new buildings.”

Board member Merri Shumway said the district needs to find a balance and added, “It is a dangerous thing to put money into stuff that may cost us more and more every year.”

The board discussed the development of a formal response to suggestions they have received regarding the district Native American policies and procedures.

Eight suggestions and comments have been submitted regarding school fees, fee waivers, building security, internet access, air conditioning on school busses, concern about how the Indian Education Committee and Johnson O’Malley programs are managed, a request for a National Honor Society at Monument Valley High School, and support for the Unity Clubs.

The board expects to approve the formal responses in July.

The board also reviewed a report about the participation of Native American students in school education programs and activities.

The report looked at the number of Native and non-Native students in school activities.

“I see a movement in a positive way,” said Superintendent Ron Nielson. “We have healthy trends and Native American participation is increasing.”

Nielson focused on the Blanding schools, which have a large number of Native and non-Native students.

“The Blanding area is where we come under the microscope,” said Nielson. “We would like to see a balanced representation in the Blanding schools.”

Demolition is the recommendation for a home adjacent to Monticello High School, which was purchased by the school district several years ago.

Business Administrator Kyle Hosler reports that it would cost more than $75,000 to upgrade the electric and plumbing systems in the home, compared to an estimated demolition cost of $50,000.

Hosler said the home raises a liability issue and recommended demolition. It was not an action item on the agenda but is likely to be addressed in future meetings.

Hosler said the district could use the property for other projects, including greenhouses and construction projects.

San Juan Record

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