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The City Journals

Taking a look at how Jordan School District determined their back-to-school re-entry plan

Oct 21, 2020 12:23PM ● By Julie Slama

Jordan Board of Education Vice President Tracy Miller speaks at Bingham High School’s pipe-breaking ceremony in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Flagler/Jordan School District)

By Julie Slama|[email protected]

Returning to school this fall during the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t just a vote at a Jordan Board of Education meeting.

There were hours – and not just the Tuesday board meetings “that are seven hours long” — that were spent studying the issue for the safe return of 56,000 students, said Jordan Board of Education Vice President Tracy Miller.

“I’m probably spending 10 hours per day, from morning to night,” she said. “I try to shut it off by about 8 o’clock, but we’ve had a few things we’ve had to deal with later that than this week. The biggest thing that has come this week is trying to figure out how to do contract tracing. We had some students go to school the first day and get sick (with COVID-19) and after that, test positive. So, we’re looking at contact tracing - how to notify families. The process is well in place; we have the guidelines from the state and letter templates from the health department, but this is our first experience with implementing this process now.”

This is after Miller and other Board member had studied the guidelines set by the Center for Disease Control, the Salt Lake County Health Department and the Utah Board of Education, and made their re-entry plan for students.

Miller said that the state’s manual on reopening schools “is the thing I relied on the most. We received a lot of detailed information and that was developed with the state health department, state school board, state epidemiologist and governor’s office. Those guidelines are the ones I follow when making decisions. They include all the recommendations to mitigate risks within our schools and also stress the importance of having kids in school.”

Even so, she also listened to her community.

“Everything has tugged at my heart and people’s stories are all over the place. I feel for everybody on all sides. I think it was an agonizing decision for parents on what’s best for my child and how do I balance the risks of COVID and still make sure what my child gets is what they need. A lot of teachers had to make that decision. Everyone I talked to, I get it, I feel for everybody. I wish we could come up with the perfect solution for everybody. Everyone wants someone else to make the decision and we’ve tried as school board to own our decisions. We’re doing the best to do the best we can,” Miller said.

That plan introduced is one that includes flexibility and balance as well as individual choice.

“The plan we came up with, is the best we could do, that is, by having students in school four days per week and having more flexibility on Fridays — which is a good thing, I think, to be able to provide more personalized, individualized instruction and (it) gives teachers more time to plan and collaborate. That extra time is very much needed this year,” she said. “To me it’s a balance, COVID is not the only disease in society. We’re dealing with a lot of other issues — mental health is a huge issue we’re dealing with — and how to balance the needs of how can we mitigate risk as much as possible and still provide high-quality education and social and emotional needs for our students. That’s the balance we’ve been trying to find – and finding the right balance because there are pros and cons to every single decision. There’s not a clear (answer) — “this is great, it works for everybody.” That just isn’t the case. What we’ve tried to do is provide as much choice as possible.”

To provide students with that choice, a team of teachers worked over the summer to develop the K-8 curriculum online and district-wide curriculum was made available for specialty high school classes, Miller said. That meant that “every family got a choice” whether they wanted in-person or online education for elementary students or those same options or a hybrid for middle and high school students — as well as “every teacher got a choice where they were more comfortable teaching: online or in person. Choice has been the big thing we’ve focused on.”

And even though the decisions have been made and school has started, Miller still finds herself facing long days.

“I am getting, I don’t even know how to quantify it, dozens of phone calls and emails every day that I respond to; I’ve been out to schools, several teachers invite me to their classrooms,” she said, adding that she had just spent an hour with Riverton High faculty answering questions that morning. “I’m meeting with another group of teachers this afternoon, so just a lot of time this week being in the schools and seeing how it’s working and finding out what the challenges are with our teachers. It has been hard because we all want to plan and want to know what tomorrow will look like. It’s been hard on a lot of people.”

Addressing education concerns at a time while dealing with COVID-19 isn’t the only discussion for Jordan Board of Education. They’re addressing changing South Jordan Elementary’s year-round schedule to a traditional calendar year, relocating the accelerated program at Jordan Ridge Elementary to another school, growth issues that result in building additional schools, having boundary changes and more.

“As a school board, we continue to discuss other issues and move forward on other things,” she said. “We have respect for each other, and we don’t agree, for sure. We have different perspectives and different opinions and that’s how it should be. We make better decisions if we have a diversity of perspectives.”

However, it’s not always easy – especially the past six months.

“It’s been brutal; I think it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Miller said. “But there’s also a lot of great people out there. I’ve got a lot of thank-you emails and even some thank-you cards in the mail. Some people may not agree with my decision, sometimes, but they appreciate and see that I’m trying. They see that I’m taking everyone’s best interest in and that it’s impossible to make everyone happy. I’ve just gotten a lot of support from people…a lot of quiet support; it’s been touching. There are a lot of good, kind, understanding people — that has been what sustained me.”

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