Schools carve out day to assist teachers

Schools in the San Juan School District will not have students on December 22 in an attempt to help teachers.

The change was approved at the November 10 meeting of the school board. The meeting was held at the new Bluff Elementary School in the first off-site board meeting since the COVID-pandemic hit in March 2020.

“We have tried to be proactive because of the things we are requiring of teachers and the time that is needed to do that,” explained Superintendent Ron Nielson of the plan that will close the first semester one day early.

Students will be dismissed for the entire day and teachers will be asked to provide a “high quality” eight hours of work on that day or during the holiday break.

Nielson outlined the stresses being felt by teachers throughout the district. He said the elementary schools didn’t reach the third grade reading goal, which triggered a corrective action to bring Letters Training to the district.

Nielson said the literacy training is “cutting edge and very positive” but added, “Once we got going, we heard very quickly that the modules are more involved, and more time is required than what anyone explained.”

Secondary school teachers have faced a significant transition to an A/B schedule. Nielson said of the scheduling change, “We hear mostly positive feedback, but we do continue to hear that it is a transition that involves time from teachers.”

The impact is continued stress for the teachers. Nielson suggested that Wednesday, December 22 – the last day before the holiday break – could be considered as a professional development day for teachers.

Assistant Superintendent Julie Holt supported the proposal and added, “The grumblings we have heard is really just teachers begging for time to do everything we ask of them.”

Nielson added, “Our employees are professional and do a wonderful job. They do everything we ask of them, and we almost always get the better end of the deal.”

In other matters at the November 10 board meeting, Nielson reported that Monticello High School has petitioned the Utah High School Activities Association to go independent status in football.

The school intends to fill their schedule with eight-man teams, which are popular in southwest Colorado. There would be no post-season games for the Buckaroos.

Nielson explained that while eight-man football does not currently exist in Utah, there may be interest from other schools, including Monument Valley and Whitehorse high schools in the San Juan School District.

Nielson said other Utah schools may also be interested in playing eight-man football in the future, including Rich, Wayne, Altamont, Tabiona, and Water Canyon high schools.

In total, Nielson said eight or nine schools in Utah may be interested in eight-man fall football, which could pique interest in spring baseball for the smallest schools.

Currently, small school baseball is a fall sport. Schools have found that having both baseball and football in the same season is a challenge.

“I want the board to be aware that this could have implications to the San Juan School District,” said Nielson, who suggested a situation in which spring baseball is on the table for Monticello, Whitehorse and Monument Valley high schools.

The school board had a broad ranging conversation as they approved travel and winter sports schedules.

Nielson stated, “There are more changes than ever because of the COVID situation. In fact, our schedules have never been more non-concrete.”

Other discussion included the emerging sports that are developing in Utah, including girls wrestling and competitive cheer.

“We need to provide an equal and equitable experience if we are going to allow girls wrestling,” said Nielson, who suggested that a viable program needs to have a coach and would have to balance the use of facilities.

Other emerging sports could include E-sports, mountain biking, and volleyball, which generally start at the school level as clubs.

Nielson said E-Sports clubs already exist at San Juan and Whitehorse high schools with volunteer advisors. The clubs are utilizing the school district technology systems to compete.

“It takes time and manpower to configure the computers and systems,” said Nielson, who added that the school district has no policy in place for clubs to advance to a competitive status.

“We need to develop a process and formalize it, so we have control over what happens at our schools,” said Nielson. The district will begin the process of developing a policy in the coming months.

The school board highlighted two teachers who have received honors in recent weeks, including Theresa “Terry” James, the Ag Science teacher at Monument Valley High School, who received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the Utah Education Association.

In addition, Linda Keyes, of Monticello Elementary School, was named the Science Teacher of the Year for elementary school teachers in Region Seven.

Charity Begay, a first-grade teacher at Bluff Elementary School, was also recognized with a San Juan Sweet Job award. Begay is described as a “high energy” teacher who expects students to learn to read. She was described as creative, positive, and an exciting teacher. In addition, she is described as being very helpful to other teachers as an expert in the Canvas program

Ginette Bott, the president and CEO of the Utah Food Bank, approached the board with a request to purchase land in Monument Valley for a food bank warehouse.

Bott said the Utah Food Bank has served San Juan County for 30 years and is looking for ways to better serve reservation areas.

The request is to secure at least a .75-acre lot of school district land for a 4,000 square foot distribution facility in Monument Valley. Bott stated they would prefer a location near the other facilities that are on the school property, including Monument Valley High School, Tse’Bii’Nidzisgai Elementary School, and the teacher housing near the schools.

The school district has worked with other organizations who have proposed projects on the school property, including the Utah Navajo Health System clinic, an emergency services facility, and a proposed satellite facility for Utah State University.

The school district initially secured the land with stipulations that use of the property be restricted to educational and other necessary community services.
Bott said Utah Food Bank has already secured funding and will pay for the buildings in full.

Bott explained that the facility would include employees, will feature extended hours in the evenings and on Saturday, and will be a food operation similar to a small grocery store, with some products tailored to a Native American diet.

Bott suggested the model that may be used is a doctor writing a subscription for food, which would be distributed free of charge.

The organization has purchased 7.5 acres of land in Blanding and plans to build a 50,000 square foot warehouse as a distribution center. The center will include a greenhouse and community garden.
The land is on 200 North near Highway 191 and is the previous location of a drive-in theater.

The Food Bank is planning to build a 50,000 square foot warehouse on the site.

In addition, the Utah Food Bank has purchased a 1.5-acre lot in Montezuma Creek (near Family Dollar) and plans to build a 4,000 square foot facility to distribute food.

“There is a great need for a food bank in this area,” said school board member Nelson Yellowman. Yellowman discussed challenges related to the COVID pandemic, where hours were limited and travel was restricted.

Yellowman also asked about the restrictions on how the land can be used. The school district owns several hundred acres in the area, which represents one of the few locations where land can be purchased.

Bott said the first step for the Monument Valley proposal was to meet with the San Juan School District to see if purchasing the land is even a possibility. Bott said the Utah Food Bank would be interested in buying the property at a fair market value.

Bott admitted they have not approached the Navajo Nation to see if they can have access to tribal lands.

Superintendent Ron Nielson said district is moving forward day by day with the ongoing response to the COVID pandemic.

While school communities are continuing to see active cases, Nielson said, “We are not seeing numbers that are even coming close to the threshold of 30 (that would trigger a more aggressive response by the school district.”

The superintendent added, “We do not believe that we are getting all of the active cases and suspect that many kids go home sick, do not get tested, and come back after they feel better.”

As of November 22, there were eight active cases in Blanding schools, three in Monument Valley schools, two in the La Sal school, and one in the Montezuma Creek schools.
Nielson stated, “There is still uncertainty about what will happen. We are taking it day by day.”

The district is partnering with Utah Navajo Health Systems to help distribute the recently approved vaccine for children ages five to 11.

“There is no mandate, and the vaccine is 100 percent parent choice,” said Nielson. “There is no motive to pressure, but to allow parents the choice. In fact, parents must be present for children to receive the vaccine.”

The district adjusted the approved spending plans for students in the FFA program at Albert R Lyman Middle School in Blanding and players on the Monticello High School baseball team.
The FFA program has a $460 maximum out-of-pocket expense for the ARL program, which is just getting started.

New uniforms for the Monticello baseball team increased the maximum out-of-pocket cost to player to $585.

Student Services Director Trevor Olsen discussed the district Comprehensive Guidance Counseling and the board approved letter of support in anticipation of an annual review of the program.

In addition, Olsen discussed the district efforts to create School Well-Being Teams, which provide support for caregivers, educators and students to improve student metal health and wellbeing. The San Juan School District partners with other agencies in a collaborative effort.

Barbara Silversmith, the principal of Bluff Elementary School, gave a report to the school board in the beautiful new school, which opened to students in August.

Silversmith discussed that impacts of no in-person instruction for students for more than a year. She explained that one challenge is helping students catch up who have lost more than a year in instruction.

Silversmith said some students really fell behind during the past year and have “huge deficits and holes” in their education. A new Learning Loss para-educator was hired to help with that.

The principal added that new initiatives and programs that are being implemented this year are challenging for teachers who are trying to manage the programs in a timely and efficient manner.
Enrollment and attendance are still impacted by the pandemic.

“People are cautious and afraid,” said Silversmith. “They want to keep their students at home and safe.”

The school still retains a mask mandate in the school

During the public comment period, LouAnne Hook, a Bluff resident for the past 33 years and member of the Bluff Town Council, thanked the district for the new facility.

“This is my first time in the school, and it is beautiful and gorgeous,” said Hook. “All of us have heard nothing but good things about this new school.”

The district is in the process of considering a two-year contract extension for Superintendent Ron Nielson. The new contract will need to be finalized by January 2022 for a contract that would begin on July 1, 2022.

There were a number of activities in the schools and communities surrounding the observance of Veterans Day

December 8 is the next school board meeting.

San Juan Record

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