San Juan School Board leaves COVID policies unchanged, receives college building update

The San Juan School Board got an update on the proposed college building in Monument Valley, considered a lawsuit against an electronic cigarette company, and kept their COVID policies status quo as part of their September 8 meeting.

The district is following the same policies they put in place at the beginning of the academic year as it relates to COVID-19.

In the River Region area of the district – which includes schools in Bluff, Montezuma Creek, Monument Valley, and Navajo Mountain – masks are required for students, staff, and visitors at the school. The policy is in compliance with the Navajo Nation Health Order.

In the Mountain Region area of the district – including schools in Blanding, Monticello, and La Sal – mask wearing is optional.

A 30-day mask requirement for those schools, like the one currently in place in Grand County, would require an order from the public health department, as well as approval from the San Juan County Commission.

The Grand school mask mandate has support from the school district, public health, county commission, and Moab Regional Hospital.

At the meeting, the board received an update on how COVID cases are impacting schools in the district. The district is updating its website daily with the number of known active cases among staff and students at each school. 

San Juan School District Superintendent Ron Nielson said that on the morning of the board meeting, he had a conversation with a parent who had made the decision that morning to start sending their children to a mountain region school in masks.

“That made me happy that parents are seeing this data and making the decisions that they feel comfortable with,” said Nielson, who added the district has heard a wide variety of comments from parents regarding response to COVID-19.

At the time of the meeting, Blanding Elementary had seven cases, San Juan High had six, and Blanding Elementary School had three cases.

Tse’Bii’Nidzisgai Elementary School had three active cases. No other school in the district had more than one. 

Nielson says the only time he remembers having more than seven active cases last school year was following Christmas break, when there were 11 cases at San Juan High.

“We were able to contact trace those back to a New Year’s Eve party, and it didn’t go up from there,” said Nielson. “It went down very quickly from there.

“But that was the only time I saw it really ever even above two or three or four last year.”

If the numbers of active cases in any school reaches a certain threshold, the Utah State legislature has implemented a test-to-stay protocol for all schools in the state.

While the threshold for schools with 1,500 students or more is two percent positive cases in the past 14 days, in schools with fewer than 1,500 students the threshold is 30 positive tests for COVID-19 in the previous 14 days.

Every school in San Juan County falls under the 1,500 student population, meaning if any school reaches 30 positive cases, a test-to-stay protocol would be implemented.

In that scenario, every student in an infected school would be tested for COVID-19. Those who test negative for the disease would be allowed to stay in school, while those who test positive would be sent home to quarantine for 10 days. 

Those who choose not to be tested would also be sent home to quarantine for 10 days.

Nielson says that in addition to concerns about the physical health of students and staff, there are concerns about mental wellbeing within the district.

“So just be aware, the mental grind and the emotional support that we need to provide to our staff, to our students, to our stakeholders is also large,” said Nielson, “because there’s real mental fatigue involved in dealing with this every day.”

At the meeting, the board also heard from Kristian Olsen, Associate Vice President of Utah State University (USU) Blanding.

USU Blanding has approached the district this past year in hopes of leasing a parcel of school district land in Monument Valley to build a new building for the local university.

While the USU Monument Valley building still needs to raise significant funds ahead of construction, the University may have identified the best location for the building.

A consultant team worked with USU, the school district, and the Navajo Nation to rank the three locations under consideration for the building.

The proposed location is a triangle-shaped parcel located northwest of the high school, with access along Monument Valley Road. The building would be across the street from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints branch building.

The property would include a 48-stall parking lot, some surrounding land, and the building. While still in the planning stages, the conceptual plan for the building would be a 12,867 square foot facility.

The concept includes a lobby area, classrooms, conference rooms and offices, a nursing lab, a computer lab, and a welding lab.

Two patios would exist outside the building and an outdoor welding lot as well.

Building costs are estimated at $10 million, but Olsen says they’ve seen the estimate rise over the past few months as construction costs have increased.

The other two sites considered are located along Highway 163. One is directly east of the UNHS Monument Valley Community Health Center; the other would be across the highway from the Monument Valley Welcome Center.

The preferred northwest site would be just a few minutes’ walk from Monument Valley High School, which would allow students to attend concurrent enrollment classes. The other two sites would be further away. 

Utilities will also be more accessible at the preferred site.

Nielson said the district building and maintenance departments were involved in the discussion and district staff strongly supports the site located in the northwest portion of the property.

“I don’t think it’s space that we’d ever envisioned using,” said Nielson. “We’ve always really valued our road-front property and also there was some concern about blocking of views, so that eliminates those concerns out of the way.

“We really valued the ability to build some pathway programs and the proximity to the school would really help facilitate our students usage.”

A nearby agriculture area would not be impacted by the building. 

Board member Nelson Yellowman asked about traffic safety in the area. He pointed out that the location near the elementary school already had turning lanes and asked if a turning lane would be required at the northwestern parcel.

Olsen replied that traffic has been a consideration, and they will work with those who manage the road to determine traffic needs.

“If we had to put in a turning lane there, we would absorb those costs,” said Olsen. “We would quite frankly be required to do that if it’s state property.”

The board did not vote to draft a lease agreement at the meeting. Board member Merri Shumway asked for staff to look into the process of who would draft the lease agreement, while Yellowman asked for more time to review documents and consider the pros and cons of the proposed site. 

At the meeting, the board also heard an invitation to join other school districts across the country in a class-action lawsuit against an electronic cigarette company.

The Utah Parent Teacher Association encourages districts to join a suit against JUUL Labs, Inc by the end of 2021. JUUL and Altria make e-cigarette cartridges used for vaping. 

Vaping involves heating a liquid to become vaporized and inhaled, with liquids often containing nicotine and marijuana. Standard smoke detectors cannot identify use in school, and vape detectors cost upwards of $4,000 a unit.

The popularity of vaping has increased in the past decade, including among minors.

Data from the state shows that in a 2017 SHARP survey, 16.6 percent of 12th-grade students in San Juan County had tried vaping at least once. The number rose to 23.3 percent in 2019. 

While usage of vapes rose nearly seven percent in the county, cigarette usage dropped slightly. In 2017, 18.1 percent of 12th-grade students in San Juan County had at least tried smoking cigarettes once. That number dropped to 17.7 percent in 2019. 

The invitation to join the lawsuit would have no cost, other than an estimated five hours of staff time.

The lawsuit has a contingency fee, meaning the law firm only collects payment if they win the case. If the case is won, a majority of the money awarded would be split among districts that joined the case.

The board decided to wait another month on the decision to join the lawsuit. Board member Steven Black expressed his hesitation.

“I’m always a little bit leary when there are attornies coming to us to try and get on board with a lawsuit rather than us finding something where we’ve been wronged and finding an attorney,” said Black.

He added that he didn’t see the issue directly linked to the district. “It seems to me it’s a problem of not schools, but the populace. That’s why I was asking about the Utah Attorney General.”

The Utah Attorney General has not joined the lawsuit. Nielson also expressed his opinion that the direct correlation between JUUL and the district is there.

“We have seen the tremendous effects in our schools,” said Nielson.

“From discipline, from social and emotional problems, from attendance problems from lower student learning which means more intervention which means the whole system starts to get utilized in that way.”

Nielson added that litigation is the way to put companies accused of wrongdoing in check.

At the meeting, the district also recognized Monticello Elementary School counselor Liesel Johnson and Monticello High School teacher Kara Boyd with their monthly San Juan Sweet Job award.

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