‘It is our role to support schools opening’; State board discusses how to get back on track in fall

Unsplash, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The Utah State Board of Education discussed plans and guidelines last week for reopening K-12 public schools in the fall. The board also unanimously approved a request to seek a grant to study education spending efficiency in Utah.

On Thursday, Washington County School District sent out a survey to parents to assess the comfort level they felt with sending their children back to school on Aug. 13.

District communications manager Steven Dunham told St. George News the district is moving forward with the mindset that the level of caution will be lifted to green by the time school is set to begin.

“We’re hoping and anticipating it will be green, so we can move forward under a green condition,” Dunham said. “The survey is really to help us if, A- it is not (green), and B- if it transitions back to a yellow or orange.”

At the state board meeting, State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson talked about the need to clearly communicate that it is the authority of local education agencies, in alignment with state and local health departments, to determine individual plans for reopening.

These plans include dates of reopening, student schedule specifications, bus route operations, requirements for attendance and whether elementary students will continue with the teachers they had during the 2020 year or if they will get a new teacher.

Child doing remote work, Cedar City, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Shannon Dulaney, St. George News

“It is our role to support schools opening in the fall if they are able,” Dickson said.

Part of this support was the board drafting some considerations for a reimagined future. This includes instructional structures such as remote learning, looping and blended learning.

The draft defines looping as a teacher spending two or more years with the same classroom of students, which could offer one way of addressing learning gaps that might have occurred during school closures.

Looping is geared primarily toward elementary students and teachers. One advantage of the strategy would be that students would already have a connection with the teacher on the first day of school. Likewise, teachers would already have an understanding of their students’ personalities and learning styles.

Dunning said the Washington County School District didn’t have feedback yet to report on the outcome of the survey. He said the local board will be focusing on the budget at the next meeting and then will work on drafting their plan for reopening schools in the fall.

Along the lines of budgeting and finances, the State Board of Education also approved on Thursday a request to seek a three-year, $1 million grant to study spending efficiency. Approving the motion to seek this grant comes just days after the board approved recommendations for budget cuts that could be as much as $380 million for the fiscal year 2021 and as the Census Bureau released data showing Utah falling dead last in per-pupil spending, a spot it has held for more than two decades.

If awarded the grant, the proposed study would be an extension of a current study led by WestEd researchers examining a variety of topics, such as the extent of equity access and public education goals in K-12 schools across the nation. The aim for the study is to analyze current models of spending and their effects, in order to provide recommendations for possible improvements.

Unsplash, St. George News

Ultimately, the main goal is to improve efficiency.

The proposed study by the board is noted as a rigorous analysis of determining the relationship between student achievement and program costs. The study would act as a critical information source and gauge whether impacts are persistent or temporary.

It would also allow for a comprehensive examination of students’ educational day-to-day experiences.

Determining whether higher per-pupil spending equates to higher academic achievement is an age-old debate; however, one thing that came to light due to the recent soft closures of schools was a common disparity found among Utah’s public school children, specifically the lack of tech-equity, such as having adequate technology to facilitate distance learning.

More efficient spending could help remedy those inequities. The duration of the study would be three years, and the estimated budget is $1 million.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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