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Park City Schools Superintendent directed Parley’s Park not to enforce mask mandate; cases spike

Parley's Park Elementary School
Parley's Park Elementary School

Although Parley’s Park Elementary School is under a mask mandate ordered by Summit County, Park City School District Superintendent Jill Gildea directed staff not to follow it.

According to Parley’s Park staff and the Park City teachers union, Dr. Gildea emailed the teachers union Monday morning telling them the mandate was unenforceable. The union replied and cited state education department COVID guidelines showing the mandate is enforceable. Later that night the district’s lawyer followed up with another email saying he believed the mandate was not enforceable.

Starting Tuesday morning, Parley’s students were shown a slide in their classrooms each morning that reads “PPES is under a mask mandate. Please remember to follow directions given to you by your parents in terms of wearing a mask.”

In addition, Principal Kim Howe announced over the school’s loudspeaker that the school is under a mask mandate but that kids should follow whatever direction parents or guardians gave them.

After receiving complaints from five Parley’s Park teachers, the union asked Gildea to change the messaging to reflect the mandate. The union has been communicating with Gildea all week, repeating that request.

On Thursday, Parley’s school nurse Shannon Corcoran went class to class to count mask compliance.

She did that, she said, because she had been out Monday and Tuesday but had heard something Wednesday that worried her.

“I heard the principal say, we have a mask mandate, something along the lines of 'what we're encouraging you to do as students is just do what your parents say.' And I stopped when I was doing and thought, 'oh, that's news to me. I haven't heard that. That's not how I would define a mask mandate.'”

Of the roughly 600 students, faculty and staff, Corcoran counted 102 students with no mask at all Wednesday, and another 50 with masks hanging off them but not worn properly. Four staff members she happened to see were unmasked as well, though the staff number wasn’t a comprehensive count.

The mask mandate is triggered, as it was last weekend, when the campus has 13 positive cases within a 14-day period.

According to an audio recording provided to KPCW, a parent called the school Thursday and asked if her son had to wear a mask. The receptionist said “no” twice. The parent then clarified that the mandate was not being enforced, which the receptionist confirmed, saying “what we’ve been instructed is to follow the direction of the parent.”

Corcoran said she is speaking out due to concern for public health, especially the immunocompromised population in the school, and the goal of transparency.

“My biggest concern is I have so many parents at that school that believe their students are under a mask mandate and they believe their students are protected from this rising case count. And that is not the truth. And one of the fourth grade teachers said yesterday after the announcement was made the ‘do what your parents would like’ one kid immediately ripped off his mask and cheered. This is the message a child hears, do what your parents say. It's not required in any way.”

Contacted by KPCW Thursday, Gildea suggested that the receptionist talking to the parent caller had mistakenly cited policy that was in place before the mandate took effect. Asked about the loudspeaker message and classroom slide, she described those as communications from the principal that she had reviewed late Thursday and said they may have been misinterpreted or taken out of context.

However, Corcoran said the parent choice messaging was not the principal’s, but Gildea’s. Corcoran said she was on a phone call October 29, as the campus was hitting the 2 % threshold of positive cases that triggers the mask mandate, in which Gildea directed Howe not to trigger the mask mandate even though Howe wanted to.

Corcoran said that was followed up with more communication from Gildea to Howe with instructions on how to message mask-wearing. Howe did not speak to KPCW or respond to request for comment. But Corcoran said the parent choice instructions came from the district office.

She characterized what happened this month as part of a districtwide situation that has frustrated nurses since the pandemic began.

“We consistently get pushback as nurses as to what's the right thing to do. the nurses will go to the district and say this is the right way to approach this, and they make their decisions and we step in line - until now. I have loved Parley’s Park. I have not enjoyed my time with the district but I have loved my team of nurses and Parley’s Park. They’re trying to do the right thing.”

Park City Education Association leaders said in a statement they were frustrated by the lack of progress this week.

“Educators have not had support to keep their students and themselves safe, even as we have urged the district to implement the mandate in message and practice. Educators and students who are immunocompromised have been teaching and learning in an environment that does not factually reflect the expectations of a mask mandate in messaging from the district or implementation from the district and the county. The community deserves the truth about the lack of masks at PPES under the mandate."

Confusion has reigned at Parley’s Park. Some parents reported they believe their students can remove their masks as soon as the campus website dashboard dips below 2 %, which is incorrect. Other parents, like Paul Hochman, were furious about health risks to their families.

“Now you're telling me that I can't figure out for myself whether or not the school is safe?" Hochman said. "Well, this parent no longer has the ability to do that assessment. Whatever method a school uses to calculate something related to safety, whether it's the number of exits, whether it's how many fire extinguishers you have in the place, it better be- it better be accurate. If you're not going to make it easy for me to count and therefore assess my kid's safety, then you're failing.”

Gildea emailed school staff Thursday night with updated instructions on handling calls from parents about the mask mandate. It says those answering phones should inform parents there is a mask mandate, but does not mention what staff should say if someone asks if anyone needs to wear a mask.

Parley’s Park reported six new COVID cases Friday. Corcoran said those might have been prevented if the mandate had been implemented.

Corcoran resigned from her position at Parley’s Park last month and is returning to work at the hospital, which she said will be an easier place to work during the pandemic.