Students will ‘rise to our expectations’ on mask wearing, superintendent says

Granger High School Principal David Dunn and assistant principal David Beck show plexiglass walls that were recently installed at the West Valley school on Thursday, July 9, 2020. The plexiglass was installed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Granger High School Principal David Dunn and assistant principal David Beck show plexiglass walls that were recently installed at the West Valley school on Thursday, July 9, 2020. The plexiglass was installed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson says students will rise to the expectations of their schools when it comes to wearing face masks.

“I will say regardless of what feelings are about masks or no masks, I certainly think it’s important for every student to wear one. ... I want to put this out there that students rise to our expectations,” Dickson told the Utah State Board of Education on Thursday morning.

Later in the day, Gov. Gary Herbert issued an order that all public school students, educators, employees and visitors wear masks in schools this fall. He declined to issue a statewide mask mandate, despite calls from some groups to do so.

Dickson said she hears people say students won’t wear face coverings. “We will we teach them and monitor, teach and monitor, teach and monitor. That’s what we do with all our other procedures all the time,” she said.

Many district and charter plans already include face coverings on school buses, which was required by a state mandate issued earlier this summer.

Dickson said most return-to-school plans remain a work in progress, with districts and charters working out the fine details. Some “common threads” are emerging among the plans, but Dickson said she hesitated to name a district or charter school because “I want to protect their privacy as they’re developing their plans.”

She added: “I was pleased to hear that they are really thinking of multiple ways, again, trying to be nimble and adaptive, providing face-to-face opportunities, blended opportunities and remote learning options.”

Plans to safely and successfully restart school are also challenging for teachers, she said.

Many teachers use their “meager supply budgets” to purchase classroom supplies that are used by all students in their classrooms such as tiles or other small objects used to teach math concepts or art supplies, Dickson said.

“How do you mitigate the germs that might be there? It causes me to pause and think about flu season and colds and everything else,” she said. Individual supplies for students may be needed to mitigate risk, she said.

Schools are also highly focused on updated hygiene and cleaning protocols, she said.

“We’ve encouraged them to really involve students in this as well. We teach procedures all the time in our classrooms ... teaching hygiene and not just hand-washing,” she said. Students can be taught to clean their desks and clean off their Chromebooks before and after their use each day.

Work is underway in many school districts to install acrylic barriers in classrooms and other employees’ work spaces.

Dickson said she is has encouraged districts to develop “nimble” plans that enable them to adjust to changing conditions and to mitigate risk.

One unnamed rural district is considering a three-pronged plan: a 100% plan, which is all face-to-face instruction; a 50% plan, which is half in-classroom and half remote instruction; and a 25% plan, which heavily relies on remote instruction.

Other considerations schools are taking into account are movement of students within buildings, group sizes and efforts to keep cohorts together where possible.

“This is something that Colorado is really focusing on, changing schedules and doing whatever they can to keep cohorts of students together to mitigate risk,” she said.

Meanwhile, Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews noted in a Facebook post that she had heard from teachers across the state that return-to-school plans “don’t go far enough to protect them and their students. Some plans go into great detail about student health and safety but fall short in adequately addressing protections for school employees.”

She urged school districts to seek educator input on plans to resume school.

“It’s important for us to get back to in-person learning, but we must make the transition in a way that does not unnecessarily endanger the health of our students and school staff. If we don’t prioritize the health and safety of school staff and properly accommodate high risk employees, we fear schools may not remain open long,” the statement said in part.

Research shows that students learn best when they have face-to-face personal interaction with a highly qualified teacher in a well-resourced classroom, Matthews wrote.

“Public schools are where our students have access to the physical, mental and nutrition services many of our most vulnerable students need. We must be careful and calculated in returning to this most optimal educational setting so we can provide the education our students deserve.”

Federal guidelines developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention include keeping desks 6 feet apart and for children to use cloth face coverings. The CDC suggests the closing of communal areas like dining rooms and playgrounds and the installation of physical barriers like sneeze guards where necessary.