ST. GEORGE — After a soft closure of schools that started in March, followed by summer break, Southern Utah students and teachers are back inside the classroom. But from masks to social distancing, the setting at school has been anything but the norm.
Steven Dunham, communications director for the Washington County School District, told St. George News that the health department has reported less than 10 cases of COVID-19 among students in the southwest region, and none of them has been reported as having been contracted at school.
This doesn’t mean things are running smoothly just yet. For one, St. George News has received some concern expressed among teachers about the lack of social distancing during lunch; however, Dunham said they haven’t had an issue with this – at least not in the elementary schools.
Secondary schools are a lot different.
“In the elementary we can bring them down by grade level, and we have more space. In the secondary, we can’t do that,” he said.
“You can still do it by grade level,” Dunham continued, “but you still have 600 students at a time. The health department said wear a mask while you’re in line, and then while you’re eating, you can take your mask off. And the goal in between is to sanitize tables. But unfortunately, with the situations with our schools, there’s no way we can possibly social distance for that many children.”
Dunham said they are working to refine the process, and bumps along the way have been expected. He said he thinks they will get to the point where wearing a mask isn’t a central focus.
“If we could just stop the protests, stop the changes, stop all these things and focus on the education and school.”
Call for ‘No Mask Monday’ falls largely on deaf ears
After the most recent rally against masks on Aug. 21, there was talk of students holding a “No Mask Monday” the following week, where students were planning to show up at school without their masks.
But on Monday, Dunham said, that there were only six students in the whole district who showed up and refused to comply with the mask mandate – three in secondary and three in elementary. They had the option to put on a mask or go home with their parents; they chose to go home.
“In reality, we had more parents bring treats and thank you notes to our teachers and staff than we had students participate in that (No Mask Monday), so we’re really pleased that we have the cooperation from our students and our parents,” Dunham said. “We want to just keep schools open and keep things moving smoothly.”
There also haven’t been any suspensions due to noncompliance with the mask mandate.
“It’s not so much a suspension as it is a choice students have,” he said. “A suspension is more a punishment that is handed out by the school. And in this case, the students are able to choose whether they want to comply with the mandate, or if they choose not to, they can go home with their parents.”
As soon as a student decides to put on a mask and comply with the mandate, he or she is welcome back at school.
One of the students who showed up on Monday without a mask was the daughter of Jason Graham, who told St. George News that his daughter attends Water Canyon High School and wanted to exercise her rights and what she learned at the rally.
“She wanted to take a stand and say, ‘I’m not wearing a mask,'” Graham said.
The principal offered several different options, such as changing her schedule so she was participating in mostly outdoor classes. The assistant principal also offered her office, so Graham’s daughter could, at any time, come into her office and take off her mask.
“They decided they wanted to go home to try to make a point,” Graham said of his daughter and the other students. “I don’t think it was a great enough impact to really make much of a point, but I supported her in that, and that was her choice for the day.”
Graham, who has kids at both the elementary and high school, said he sent a letter to the principals before school started stating that if he had any issues with the school regarding masks and his kids, he would pull his kids out of school. He also said he thought the schools were going to have this be a regular occurrence.
I made it clear that they are not to be punished in any way, shape or form, for any mask-related issue.
While he was willing to compromise and put his kids in a mask for them to attend school and walk around the halls, he said he wasn’t OK with them sitting all day in class with a mask on. However, the feedback he said he was getting from his kids was that most of the teachers were not enforcing the in-class mandate to wear a mask.
“If someone wanted to take their mask down and hang it around their neck, for some period of time, teachers were allowing that,” Graham said. “So I didn’t get upset about the requirement for them to be in a mask all day too much because they didn’t seem to be getting any real enforcement.”
When Graham reminded the principal of his statement, he said both the principal and assistant principal explained that the school district had a rule that teachers are supposed to be having a mask break every 12 minutes.
He said he was told that any time they want to take their masks off, they are allowed to get a hall pass, go outside and take it off, and there are not supposed to be any negative repercussions, such as missed assignments.
“If my daughter wanted to go outside because she’s tired of not being able to breathe that well and she wants to take that break, then she can. And the teacher needs to make sure she gets whatever instruction she had missed at that point, which is obviously a system that’s ripe for abuse,” he said. “But that’s what he (the principal) told me.”
Dunham said that the district does not have a 12-minute break rule. He said he spoke with the principal at Water Canyon High, who informed him that what Graham said was not true. Water Canyon High allows teachers to take the class outside for mini breaks as long as the break includes a lesson.
“It’s only some teachers, and if they take the mini breaks out of the classroom, it has to be part of the curriculum,” Dunham said. “And the students have to social distance when they take their masks off.”
Students want a voice
On Aug. 21, an Enterprise High cheerleader, Dallee Cobb, spoke to the crowd at an Enterprise High School football game asking them to please wear a mask so they can keep playing.
“We ask that you put your mask on, so we can get our game on,” Cobb said. “We know that many of you disagree with the mask mandate, so we leave the decision up to you, but we ask that you keep in mind that by wearing your mask, you’re supporting all of us athletes and helping us get back to some kind of normalcy.”
Two other Enterprise students, Dawson Thelin and Broc Gardner, took to social media over the weekend, imploring fellow students not to listen to the call for a “No Mask Monday.”
Dunham said these students weren’t asked to do this; they did it by their own choosing. They recognized what the class of 2020 had lost when the schools were shut down, and they don’t want to take the risk.
In addition to their efforts over the weekend, Cobb, Thelin and Gardner also spoke during Gov. Gary Herbert’s press conference on Wednesday about the need for parents to let them have a voice in this matter.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has provided daily, then weekly press conferences providing updates on how the state is dealing with the spread of the virus.
But on Wednesday, he stepped aside for the three kids from Enterprise High School.
Herbert allowed the students to take over a good portion of the press conference to provide a message they said was to tell adults that they just want to go to school, and wearing masks was the way to do it.
“We just heard some rumors about parents in our community not agreeing with the mask mandate. We felt that our senior year and the school year was being threatened,” Cobb said via Zoom link to the press conference held at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City. “We just ask one thing: Don’t take away what we want.”
The three students said they are alarmed by the anti-mask efforts of some adults because they say those efforts might keep schools from staying open.
“Even though we’re kids, our voices aren’t irrelevant. Our voices matter, especially in the face of so much opposition from adults,” Cobb said. “We shouldn’t just throw it away over something as small as wearing a mask. We don’t want parents to be pushing this agenda that we shouldn’t wear masks because we want to do it. Ask your kids how they feel.”
Thelin told the media at the governor’s press conference that in-person school has something that online classes don’t: socializing with friends in person, participating in extracurricular activities and discovering oneself with their peers.
“That’s where so many kids feel safe. And that’s school,” Thelin said.
Gardner added that he feels parents are “pushing their agenda on kids” with what he said was false information about wearing masks in schools.
“We just wanted to push back at the narrative that was being pushed forward,” Gardner said.
Herbert, calling the Enterprise students “wise beyond their years” said in some respects, the children have led more than the adults when it comes to opening schools safely.
“The students are teaching us by example. They’re leading the way for us,” Herbert said. “The students have shown they will do what’s necessary to wear masks and have schools continue on. If we can do it in Washington County where it’s 110 degrees, we can do it anywhere.”
A question of mixed messages
The teens’ assertion that adults are pushing an agenda would seem to be supported by information received by St. George News about questionable activity in Enterprise, specifically an anonymous tip that students were being told at school “by the high school counselor and PTA president” to not get tested for COVID-19 so that schools wouldn’t get shut down.
When specifically asked about the accusation, Dunham told St. George News students are not being encouraged by any district staff during school.
Social media, on the other hand, is where there has reportedly been an issue, specifically at Enterprise and in Hurricane.
Dunham said there have been “different people” who have posted on their personal social media encouraging students and others to not get tested, but he wouldn’t specify who the people were and said no one was speaking in an official capacity.
“We can’t control what people do on their personal, private Facebook pages,” he said. “We make it very clear that they cannot address that with students or with staff, to not go get tested, that is not the proper procedure.”
Community coming together
Masks haven’t been as challenging for some schools.
Andy Burt is the principal of Gateway Preparatory Academy in Iron County, a public charter school that started instruction on Aug. 17, a week before the rest of the schools in their district. Burt told St. George News that the community there has been understanding, and they have not had any issues.
“Our community is very understanding of the governor’s order,” he said. “As a school, we’ve really tried to plan for a lot of breaks and a lot of opportunities for students to go outside and take them (masks) off for a minute where we can socially distance.”
Burt said the reopening has gone much smoother than he expected.
“I think teachers are a little stressed about the extra work as far as managing students at home, students on campus, masks, but overall I think for us it’s been a really great start to the year.”
One of the main challenges of reopening has been dealing with the uncertainty, Burt said, echoing Dunham’s sentiments about the frustrations of the seemingly constantly evolving situation.
“What’s next? It seems to change fairly regularly in our world.”
But the most surprising thing about this experience has been in seeing the cooperation of parents, he said.
“I think that’s helped with the mask issue and teachers getting stretched because I do think parents are really willing to meet schools halfway, and they’ve really shown that.”
Burt also talked about a generational difference he has noticed, especially when it comes to the mask issue. Problems with the mask mandate at other schools is coming mostly from parents not students, he said.
“The kids we’re raising now are really aware of their community and really aware of how they fit in that community and are willing to sacrifice and be their better selves and do what needs to be done,” he said.
This same sense of community understanding is also what Drew Williams, principal of Tuacahn High School for the Arts, told St. George News about their reopening.
“I’ve had multiple teachers say that they’re more excited about this year and the energy from students than they’ve ever been,” Williams said. “I think that COVID has created this kind of collective ideology that school matters, people matter and being together and working toward a common goal matters more now than ever before.”
The classes that have been the most affected by the mask mandate have been the dance classes, Williams said.
“We don’t know what COVID is going to bring. One professional director of a dance company said masks might become the new normal, and if we don’t rehearse and practice in masks, we’re not going to be prepared for the performances of the future.”
So far Tuacahn has had two students test positive for the coronavirus, Williams said, but after working with the health department and following all the procedures, both students are well and have returned to campus.
Williams said they check temperatures of every student in the morning, which has allowed him the chance to greet every student.
“And that has been a beautiful, unintended consequence of COVID,” he said, something he said he plans to continue long after the pandemic subsides.
St. George News reporter Chris Reed contributed to this story.
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