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Students tell the Park City school board the harm of remote learning, and of staying in-person

PCSD Park City School District Building Ben
Ben Lasseter

The Park City school board heard reaction on Tuesday to its decision not to move to remote learning amid an unprecedented spike of COVID-19 cases.

Last week, the Park City Board of Education chose not to move to remote learning to slow the spread of COVID-19 in schools. The virus has spread faster than ever in recent weeks, causing hundreds of absences among students and staff.

Board members cited equity and the potential ineffectiveness of a four-day pause as reasons to remain in person. They said schools were the safest place for students.

This week, about 20 people attended the board meeting to offer feedback on the decision to keep schools open. A handful spoke in favor of the decision; fewer spoke to oppose it.

All agreed that in-person learning was better for students and teachers.

Mary Morgan, a co-president of the union that represents most Park City teachers, said the union surveyed its members about their preference for going remote or staying in person.

“The results were literally split down the middle, as we kind of thought,” Morgan said. “Half wanted to be remote temporarily under the governor's memo, half wanted to be in person. And that split is consistent across the elementary and secondary schools.”

Current and former Park City High School students told the board their opinions, as well.

Jonathan Mount, who said he was a 2021 PCHS graduate, spoke about the harm that remote learning caused students. He said online education was inadequate and that when schools weren’t open, students were more susceptible to mental health and substance use struggles.

He told the board what it was like during the initial closure in 2020, the spring of his junior year.

“During those three months, it was not uncommon for me to receive phone calls from my friends contemplating self harm or even suicide. The resources they once possessed at school were no longer accessible.” Mount said. “School, even if just for a mere eight hours, was a place for some of my friends to escape from abusive households. ‘School was the one place I could go,’ a friend said on a phone call. ‘The one place where I could feel safe and feel loved.’ For someone like her, a school closure would exchange a near-0% chance of dying from COVID with a 100% chance of being trapped in a cruel cycle of depression and abuse. What are kids in abusive households supposed to do? Wait it out?”

Board members, in explaining their decision last week, alluded to the disproportionate impact that remote learning has on students who have to take care of siblings at home or who are unsupervised or who do not receive support from parents.

High school student Chris Henry spoke of another side of the pandemic: the realities of going to a school that at one point had nearly 190 confirmed cases of COVID-19 — more than 15% of the student body.

He asked the board to consider remote learning as a temporary response to the current outbreak. He described students not wearing masks and what it was like walking down a hallway not knowing if your best friend has COVID-19.

He said even though younger people may have less of a chance of dying from the disease, they’re still able to spread the virus.

“I don't want to go to a school where I feel at risk of getting sick and getting my family sick every single day,” Henry said. “I have people in my immediate family who are … compromised to this virus. I don't want to have to transmit — I don't want to be the one to give a member of my family COVID and have them be hospitalized or die from it. I don't think that's that unreasonable.”

The Utah Legislature is debating a bill that details how districts could opt for remote learning. Under an order from state officials, districts are allowed to transition to remote learning for the week starting Jan. 24.

On Thursday, about 200 Park City students walked out of class to protest action taken by the state Legislature to terminate Summit County's mask mandate.