Schools preparing re-entry plans

Local schools are creating a “re-entry plan” as they come out of the year-long impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Details were discussed at the March 10 meeting of the San Juan School Board.

The plans vary depending on the school and the area.

Schools in the district’s River Region (in Montezuma Creek, Bluff, Monument Valley, and Navajo Mountain) have been closed to in-school instruction for the past year.

They are impacted by a Navajo Nation stay-at-home order, which may be lifted in coming weeks.

Superintendent Ron Nielson said, “If the order is lifted, we hope to have staff back in the buildings as soon as possible.”

Schools in the district’s Mountain Region (in La Sal, Monticello, and Blanding) have held in-school instruction since August, with mask mandates and other social distancing policies.

Nielson said he is encouraged by the developing trends in the COVID-19 updates, with an increasing number of vaccinated residents and a decreasing number of active cases.

The district hopes to drop mask mandates on the playgrounds at the elementary schools and hopes to invite parents and visitors back into the schools.

The spring quarter in the district is likely to include traditional field trips for students, continued sports and activities, proms, and public graduations.

The changes cannot come fast enough for many area residents.

The public comment period for the meeting included a number of comments from parents from Blanding who are opposed to mask mandates.

Stacey Harrison presented a petition, which has garnered 214 signatures and asks the board to drop the mask mandates in the schools.

Miko Crippen expressed concerns about the masks and said that studies show the harmful effects of masks on health and psychology.

“It is a horrible legal precedent that we are setting,” said Crippen.

Kelly Shumway said her biggest fear is the mask mandate will continue into the next school year and added, “As parents, we are ready to fight for our children.”

Other parental comments expressed support for the mask mandates, at least for the near term, including Jim and LouAnne Hook of Bluff, who said, “A whole bunch of non-vocal parents are very supportive of following guidelines regarding masks until the all-clear notice is given.”

Another Bluff parent expressed concern about the open schools in some areas and the closed schools in others, adding, “You have no right to continue this racist and unequal approach to the education in the county.”

Earlier in the meeting, Superintendent Nielson addressed the parental concerns, stating, “I understand parent points of view. They are frustrated with mask mandates, but we are still under a mask mandate in the schools.

“The April 10 mask deadline [approved by the Utah State legislature] does not include schools.”

Nielson outlined areas of concern, adding, “To violate mask mandates, areas of liability increase. Some teachers may not come to work if someone becomes sick. We wonder about our liability; it might jeopardize sports and activities. There is a possibility of losing funding, and I fear losing the support of state officials.

“I look forward to the day when this mask is not on my face,” said Nielson. “One year ago, what we thought of as two weeks turned into a full year. While I have empathy for students, parents, teachers, and board members, there are a lot of variables.”

In other matters, the school board received a request to work with the City of Monticello on a project that would allow year-round use of the Monticello Swimming Pool through the installation of solar power panels on school property.

Monticello City Manager Evan Bolt and Rob Adams of sPower outlined the project, which would take advantage of materials and expertise from sPower to provide a 60-kilowatt solar power system for the swimming pool.

The system could offset up to 90 percent of the costs to heat and power the swimming pool and would result in savings that could be used to better insulate the building and extend the amount of time the pool is open.

The seasonal indoor pool opened in 2010 and is generally open from May to August each year.

At approximately $25,000 per year, utilities make up about 36 percent of the total cost to operate the pool, which must be partially heated year-round.

sPower completed a study of the roof of the pool and determined that it does not have the structural integrity needed for a roof-mounted solar power system.

Bolt and Adams stated that a quarter-acre piece of land east of the pool, owned by the school district, would be enough for an adequate 60-kilowatt system with up to 180 ground-mounted solar panels on a fixed-tilt system.

Bolt and Adams suggested that in exchange for use of the land, there would be curriculum and recreation opportunities for the school.

School officials said they have identified several options for the eastern portion of the land which was purchased by the district from the estate of Bennion Redd. However, none of the possible uses included the quarter acre on the west end of the property that would be used for the solar panels.

The school board instructed district administration to “work out the details” with the City before returning with a formal proposal.

Three principals reported on progress at their schools.

Monticello Elementary Principal Jenna Olson said, “Almost all students have returned to the school, and we are seeing amazing results from face-to-face instruction.”

Challenges include low attendance at the school. Olson said that while 90 percent is still high overall, it is still an all-time low for MES.

In addition, Olson said teachers are struggling to fit everything into their shortened day and would support a return to the pre-COVID instruction time.

Monticello High Principal KC Olson said that seven seniors at Monticello High School are at risk of not graduating this year and outlined some of the efforts to help them. All seven students were on at-home instruction at some point during the year.

Olson added that of approximately 1,000 COVID quick tests that were administered during the winter sports season, there were just four positive tests.

Of San Juan High School, Principal Ryan Nielson said, “We have had a great winter, despite all the challenges.”

Nielson reports that 86 percent of the students are involved with in-school instruction and the remaining 14 percent are on the at-home option.

After the second quarter, a full 88 percent of the at-home students were “minimally engaged in learning,” compared to 14 percent of the in-school students.

Nielson reports that a para-educator at the school is making contact with these students at least every week.

In other matters, the district honored two retiring employees with San Juan Sweet Job awards, including Laurie Randall from Monticello Elementary and Tony Esplin from Monticello High School.

The board delayed action on approving changes to policies regarding contracts with the superintendent and business manager and on policy regarding licensed employee benefits.

Legal counsel for the district recommended that the policy be approved.

Board member Merri Shumway expressed concern about the conflict between policy and the contracts with the employees. The superintendent and business manager are hired by the board on two-year contracts, while other workers are employees of the district.

Board president Lori Maughan agreed with the delay, but added, “Let’s do this in a timely manner. I don’t want to take six months.”

The board also approved approximately $80,000 for stipends to district employees who did not qualify for the COVID bonuses recently approved by the Utah State legislature.

The state has provided a $1,500 bonus for each licensed employee and $1,000 for other employees who work directly with students in the schools. The total for the bonuses to local educators totaled approximately $700,000.

However, approximately 60 district level employees were not included on the list of those who are to receive the bonuses. Superintendent Ron Nielson encouraged the board to extend the bonus to those employees, stating, “It is a flaw to not recognize the work of district staff.”

Interim Business Manager Matt Keyes said the expense could be paid from budgeted funds that were not expended during the school year.

Keyes explained that many budgets have not been spent during the COVID-impacted year, including transportation, activity, and maintenance budgets.

The bonuses will be paid to employees at the end of March.

Nielson reported to the board on the group of state officials who toured the district on March 8 to see the new local area network, which brings access to school technology for approximately 500 isolated homes in San Juan County.

“It was good for them to come down and really see San Juan County,” said Nielson. “This is going to be, in my opinion, an absolute major change in the way that we educate kids in the area. The way education has evolved, we lean on digital access and digital resources.”

He added, “We don’t want to be seen as a competitor to free enterprise and look forward to the day when private enterprise can provide this service.

“We have bridged the gap, and the bridge may no longer be needed in some places that may be able to access high-speed internet in the near future.”

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