Are school reopening plans too restrictive, or not restrictive enough? Parents, teachers along the Wasatch Front argue both sides

Jenny Gelwix, a third grade teacher at Eastwood Elementary in Salt Lake City, joins other Granite School District teachers, staff and supporters in a protest outside of the district office in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020.

Jenny Gelwix, a third grade teacher at Eastwood Elementary in Salt Lake City, joins other Granite School District teachers, staff and supporters in a protest outside of the district office in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As schools around the country get ready to kick off what is likely the most unconventional school year in recent history, districts are scrambling to find a balance between safe and effective learning.

And whether that balance is overly restrictive — or not restrictive enough — was the subject of much debate along the Wasatch Front Tuesday night.

With signs reading “Teachers immune systems are built 4 this,” and “If masks work then we’re fine,” roughly 250 people rallied outside the Davis School District building in Farmington demanding a return to normalcy.

The district’s hybrid plan, which includes remote learning every Friday and a schedule that alternates students between in-person and online class, was the subject of heavy scrutiny during the protest and the following school board meeting’s public comment period.

Meanwhile in Salt Lake City, the other end of the argument took shape as a sea of red shirts, a recognition of the “red-for-ed” movement, lined State Street outside the Granite School District building. The protesters, many of them teachers, held signs that said “30 5-year-olds can’t socially distance” and “I can’t teach from a coffin,” condemning the current opt-out plan.

Granite District is giving parents the option to choose distance learning, while students that attend in-person classes will be isolated by classroom groups with “the flow of movement controlled,” according to the district’s website.

Ironically, the majority of the protesters in Salt Lake called for a hybrid plan — the exact thing the protesters in Farmington denounced as “absurd,” “tough on working families” and “political.”

“The CDC says kids have to go back to school regularly, the president of the United States says kids need to go back to school regularly,” Mike Brown, a father from Farmington, told the Davis School Board during the public comment period.

“If teachers are scared, I’m sure they didn’t go to a Walmart, or Lowes, or gas stations these last four months,” he said. “I’m glad you think your lives are more important than any of these workers.”

Mary Ehrhard, mother of a special needs child, criticized the Davis plan, saying it wasn’t compatible with her child’s unique learning needs.

“They already are disadvantaged from learning like their peers and they need every opportunity that they can to meet with a teacher to have that individualized attention,” she said. “And they certainly won’t get it with an online, three days a week, two days in school.”

Instead, many protesters in Farmington argued for a choice between in-person or online teaching, a request similar to Granite’s plan that many teachers there on Tuesday labeled as “not very plausible” and “chaotic,” saying it would “come at the expense of my students’ education.”

“The hybrid model is what we think is a middle ground here,” said Shelly Benevento, a second-grade teacher at Spring Lane Elementary School. “We can have less students and we might actually have a chance of doing some teaching. If we do a full opening it’s going to be all about controlling the space and sanitizing all the time.”

Sellika Reese, who also teaches at Spring Lane, echoed Benevento’s concerns that Granite’s current plan would force teachers to spend the majority of their time cleaning and enforcing social distancing.

“Instead of having 30 kids you have 15 kids but they only come to school a couple times a week,” she said of the hybrid model. “Then at least you can keep them 6 feet apart and have a chance to have a safe environment with better teaching.”

Both districts conducted surveys, and both had relatively similar results. In Davis, the majority of respondents — 45% — said an alternating day schedule is ideal. In Granite, 65% said they “totally support” an alternating schedule.

A common critique of Granite’s current plan was that it leaves too much up in the air. The majority of teachers who spoke with the Deseret News Tuesday said with so much still undecided — particularly the number of online versus in-person students — it’s hard to imagine exactly what 2020 will look like.

One art teacher at a local junior high school, who asked to remain anonymous because “everybody is already scared to lose their jobs,” said she’s never felt more underprepared going into a school year.

“Teachers like to have their ducks in a row, but I’m lost. I can’t figure it out,” she said.

“I’m trying to plan to teach both in-person and online, because I don’t even know if I’m going to be a distance teacher or an in-person teacher,” said first-grade teacher Chiara Yates.

Although the protests in Farmington and Granite were markedly different in their demands, the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming school year was a common source of anxiety — a concern shared by parents, teachers and administrators around the country.

“What I would like to have happen is I’d like one of you tonight to propose a motion that you hold an emergency meeting on this topic,” one parent said to the Davis School Board. “Lets move the curtain and decide where your stance is.”

Regardless what the year looks like, it won’t be ideal, a reality summed up by Yates.

“Nothing that’s developmentally appropriate is going to happen this year,” the teacher said.

Kyle Dunphey

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