COVID-19 has derailed the normalcy of life and created divisions among parents and teachers over the risk it poses and how to respond to it.
Schools face many risks and concerns for the upcoming year that district officials have developed plans to address, leaving children the option to attend school in person but requiring masks if so and enhancing cleaning routines.
The prospect of sending kids back to school and the work that will be required to do so safely has inspired many parents and teachers to take precautionary steps in the hopes that, despite the pandemic, life can return to some level of normalcy once school is back in session.
“I feel very positive about going back to school,” said Pam Godshalx, an HMK teacher. “I’m excited. I’m very excited about going back to work and being in the classroom.”
At the same time she is feeling positive, Godshalx said she was also “very concerned” about being back in the classroom. She feels hopeful about the school taking “proper precautions” that she felt would “create a really safe environment.” She also expressed confidence in the new leadership the school district will have this year.
“We’re taking a really careful approach and I have total confidence that our superintendent, Taryn Kay, will fully handle the situation,” Godshalx said.
Reports from the Southeast Utah Health Department show that there have not yet been any local children aged 1-14 who have tested positive for COVID-19 — a pattern of low incidence within the age group that is reflective of national and statewide trends but that could be explained by a lack of asymptomatic testing of children in that age group.
On the other hand, Grand County has had one infant younger than 12 months test positive for the virus, and statewide, people aged 15-24 have the highest case rate per thousand people of any age group. The severity of symptoms among younger people has been less severe compared to older people.
Although some studies have provided signs that younger children may be at a lower risk of spreading the virus without showing symptoms, others case studies have been less promising, and the evidence overall remains inconclusive. Older children appear to be at a greater risk than younger ones of developing symptoms and spreading the disease, but exactly how much is unknown due to a lack of testing, according to health experts.
Some parents and teachers expressed concerns about the COVID-19 numbers, and some worry about the precautions the district and state are taking. Diana Lance, a local who retired last year from the Grand County Middle School, said she feels good about what masks and social distancing can do.
“There are some [people] who judge others about wearing them and some who could really help everyone learn by their examples,” Lance said. “I feel obligated as a community member to wear a mask. We’ve all tried to do our part, especially as a family.”
Lance went on to say that she thinks, “for the most part, students who attend school will take it in stride. Kids know how to adapt, and they’ll do what’s expected, and teachers will do their part as well. I do think, for the most part, younger people roll with the punches.”
Others focused on their support for sending kids back to school, such as Brooke Shumway, a middle school teacher and parent of high schoolers. Shumway said she is “100 percent” for kids going back to in-person classes and that she believes masks “should be a choice.”
“I just don’t think elementary kids will be able to do it, and it’s not worth the fight,” Shumway said, referring to the statewide requirement that children wear masks in the classroom. “Wearing a mask or not, I think everybody should go back to normal.”
Shumway went on to express concern about the impacts to students’ mental health and ability to learn online compared to learning in the classroom. She also expressed resignation and calm about her own risk.
“I assume there’s a chance I will get it, but I’m not going to live my life in fear,” Shumway said. “If I get it, I get it. There’s also a chance they could get hit walking to school or getting out of their cars. For me, it’s just not worth losing your life to try and save it from something that is controversial anyways.”
Trevor Knutson, a transportation mechanic and parent of kids in preschool, first grade, third grade, and sixth grade, said he wants to send his kids back to school and that they want to be back, as well.
“As for masks, they will do it, I think,” Knutson said. “They’d be willing to do it if it means they can go back to school. I’m not really worried about them getting sick. I think the online learning [at the end of last school year] was a pain, and the kids and parents both hate it. When we were doing it, it was mostly just busy work for the kids, and they didn’t learn much.”
Knutson said he was “just not as worried” about the virus as other people, but he is glad to see the precautions officials are taking nonetheless.
“I think we should just get back to school and get things back to normal as soon as possible,” Knutson said. “As a transportation employee of the schools, I know we are taking a ton of extra measures to make sure kids are safe and everything is cleaned and sanitized so we’ll be OK to send kids back to school. We’re really going the extra mile.”
Carter Pape contributed to this story.