Schools feed, educate thousands
Despite the fact that school buildings are closed to students, the San Juan School District is working at full capacity to educate and feed children.
“Not to say that things are perfect, but we have seen a tremendous amount of teamwork,” explained Superintendent Ron Nielson. “It has been an amazing transition in a very short period of time.”
School continues for approximately 3,000 students in the district, with instructional packets sent to students online or delivered by school bus.
Utah Governor Gary Herbert announced a two-week closure of schools on Friday, March 13 due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. That closure has been extended through the month of April and school officials are waiting for official notice about what happens next.
Nielson acknowledges that the school year may end before the social distancing guidelines which triggered the home dismissal are lifted.
“This has been a very challenging situation,” said Nielson. “We are monitoring and adjusting our efforts on an hourly basis.”
Nielson said recent adjustments include how homework packets are delivered. “We still send packets out but have discontinued having the packets returned to the teachers.”
Extra precautions have been put in place in the Navajo Mountain and Monument Valley areas, where there have been verified cases of the contagious virus.
While closures are a challenge to students and families throughout the district, there are additional challenges in many areas of the district, where there are limitations to the availability of internet, food service, and basic infrastructure.
Nielson simply explains the challenges, “These inequalities are greatly enhanced in these circumstances.”
In addition to the instruction, the school system is delivering an astounding 5,000 meals a day to children throughout the county at no cost.
Many of these meals are delivered by the school buses, which bounce down dusty roads each Monday through Friday throughout the sprawling school district.
Nielson reports there were a number of initial challenges related to securing food for the meals, but praised the work of district employees and the partnerships that developed with other entities, including Utah State University and private businesses.
The school lunch effort was benefited by donations from the companies that supply area restaurants, which are generally bustling with business this time of year but are now closed.
No meals are delivered on the weekends, and will not be delivered on Friday, April 10 due to a regularly scheduled school holiday.
Nielson asks that parents and students “stay current and communicate with the local schools.”
He said of parents, “It is amazing to see their level of cooperation and willingness to work with the schools.”
Nielson also praised the work of teachers and school staff, adding, “We are offering as high a quality of instruction as is possible.”
School officials have already announced that in addition to regular letter grades, there will be a pass/fail option to students.
“We are trying to be as accommodating as possible,” said Nielson. “We will issue letter grades, but if a parent chooses, they can request a pass/fail for their students.”
Nielson adds that construction continues on the new school in Bluff, despite some challenges for crew members. He adds that the district is still looking at an August opening date for the new school.