Iron County schools moving forward with reopening plans, including mask requirements

Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY — With the projected start of school a little less than a month away, Iron County School District officials continue to develop a formal reopening plan.

One major adjustment came after Gov. Gary Herbert’s announcement last Thursday indicating that masks or other facial coverings will be required to be worn in school by all K-12 students statewide, in addition to teachers, staff and visitors. 

In an update posted on the Iron County School District website and social media the day before Herbert’s announcement, District Superintendent Shannon Dulaney had indicated the district would be recommending but not requiring masks in the classroom for children younger than 10.

The day after Herbert’s announcement, Dulaney told Cedar City News that necessary adjustments would be made to accommodate the governor’s directive, along with anticipated guidelines being put forth by the Utah State Board of Education and the state Department of Health.

As of Tuesday morning, district officials were still waiting on further official word from the governor.

“Based on the governor’s announcement last week, ICSD will need to require students and adults to wear face coverings when social distancing is not possible,” Dulaney said Tuesday. “We are waiting for the Executive Order regarding their use and any exceptions that may be included in the order, to guide the language within our reopening plan.”

The emphasis on facial coverings has raised a number of logistical questions.

“The only requirement regarding masks is that they cover the mouth and nose and are such that they can be worn with the least amount of distraction possible,” Dulaney said, adding that the district is ordering enough masks to furnish its nearly 10,000 students and more than 1,000 staff members with at least two masks apiece.

“The district will be providing face coverings for all employees and students who need them,” she said. “If someone forgets to wear or bring their face covering, then we will provide them at each site.”

Photo illustration. | Photo by Engin Akyurt, Unsplash, St. George News / Cedar City News

Further information about face covering requirements and associated guidelines will be forthcoming, Dulaney said.

Dr. Jarid Gray, a Cedar City physician who traveled to New York City earlier this spring to help out at hospitals during the height of the city’s initial wave of COVID-19, has since been assisting the school district with its strategic planning process, including serving on the 45-member committee tasked with developing the district’s reopening plans.

Gray also addressed facial coverings as he spoke to Cedar City News at the school district offices on Friday. He said that while they have to figure out a way to move society forward, “we have to do it smart. We have to mitigate.”

“The message I’ve said with masking, is masking is the quickest avenue for us to normalize the school experience for as many kids as possible,” Gray said.

“Because if we don’t, this is what’s going to happen: If we start schools in the fall, and we’re not doing anything, as soon as we have an outbreak, schools are going to get shut down, and we’re going to revert back to (the way it was in) the spring. … That’s the last thing anybody wants to see.”

As for the possibility of exempting elementary school students from having to wear masks at school, Gray said some studies have shown the COVID-19 virus does not seem to have much transmission among prepubescent children.

“If you look at the big databases, kids, especially 9 and younger, they have the lowest rate of infection,” he said. “The science is that littler kids just don’t spread it as much. They don’t get it as easily. They tend to spread the virus less between each other. They spread even less between themselves and adults.”

Gray then offered a possible explanation:

It probably has to do with the density of the AR-2 receptor, which is the receptor that the virus enters into the cells. For whatever reason, kids have fewer of those in their noses and in their lungs, compared to adults or compared to teenagers. That’s why I think that puberty is kind of that line.

Nevertheless, Dulaney said the school district will follow whatever directives are given by the governor, along with state education and health officials.

Besides facial coverings, the district’s reopening plan is expected to address a variety of other topics, such as absenteeism, sick leave, classroom sizes, large-group gatherings, sports contests and practices, extracurricular activities, bus travel and protocols for cleaning and sanitizing surfaces.

Dulaney noted that the district is also working on ways of accommodating parents who may not yet be comfortable with sending their students to school.

“Currently, we are still in the process of putting the specifics together for remote learning and blended learning to accommodate our families who would like to keep their students home for now,” Dulaney said, adding that all teachers have been given three paid days of professional development during the summer to refine their online and personalized learning curriculum. 

This curriculum, Delaney said, “will be available to all students should the governor move us back into a soft closure situation, or if classrooms or schools are closed because of increased cases of the virus, or if students are quarantined at home because of exposure and they need to follow health department guidelines and mandates.”

Despite the limitations and logistical challenges that lie ahead, Dulaney said she prefers to focus on the positive aspects.

“Too many times, we focus on what we can’t do because of our current circumstances,” she said. “It really is about reimagining what our schools look like and reimagining what the classroom looks like – reimagining what instructional looks like in order to best meet the needs of every single one of our kids, which has always been our goal.”

The Cedar High School pep band performs during a home basketball game, Cedar City, Utah, Feb. 6, 2020 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Keith Sorensen, a music teacher at Cedar High School, said he is preparing to meet the challenges, including those posed by social distancing requirements.

“The safety and health of our students is priority No. 1. If we can’t do an activity and reasonably address those concerns, then we won’t do that activity,” Sorensen said. 

“Our administration, in tandem with our district leadership, has tried to be as proactive and positive as possible,” he said. “I’ve really appreciated that. It’s not, ‘Oh, sorry, we can’t do that.’ It’s more, ‘We’ll figure that out. It may be a challenge, we may have to do it in a new way, but we’ll do it.’” 

Kristina McGuire, who also teaches at Cedar High School, said she’s looking forward to seeing her students in the classroom again.

“They are the reason I teach,” she said, adding that she considers herself at-risk due to asthma. “I am apprehensive, though, about the mask situation and how we are going to keep on top of sanitizing frequently. … As for how I myself am going to respond to this challenge … eyes focused forward, running the race with patience, and knowing that I can do hard things.”

Iron County School District officials are planning on starting school Aug. 11 and following the school year calendar as planned, Dulaney said, adding a draft of the reopening plan is expected to be ready by July 21, after which training sessions will start for school administrators and district staff.

The Iron County School Board is then expected to consider the reopening plan for final approval during its regular meeting July 28, just ahead of the state’s imposed deadline of Aug. 1.

“We are looking forward to having our students return to school in whatever capacity families determine is best,” Dulaney said. “Educators became educators because they want to make a difference in the lives of students. They have missed having students in the building and the interaction and relationship-building that occurs during the teaching and learning process.”

Dulaney said she also appreciates the many positive messages she and other district officials have received lately, along with the valuable input and donated time provided by the 45-member reopening task force.

“We are doing and will continue to do all that we can to minimize and mitigate the risk associated with returning to school, and (we) want to garner the confidence of our families and community as we consider all that we can do as we reimagine teaching and learning given our current circumstances.”

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

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