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ASD Board calls emergency meeting, tensions flare over COVID response

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The Alpine School District (ASD) Board of Education met for an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the district’s current and future Coronavirus response. Lehi’s ASD Board representative Stacy Bateman called the meeting. 

Despite the urgent nature of the meeting, all board members and the superintendent stated their unwavering support for in-person school and said moving remote was not currently under consideration. 

The district has been navigating the unprecedented last two years as health advice, laws and public sentiment have evolved. Because of the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, schools are experiencing staff shortages. The district had two online learning days on Friday, Jan. 14, and Tuesday, Jan. 18, to create a five-day break from in-person school with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The objective of the five-day in-person break was to combat teacher fatigue, the rising COVID-19 cases and the lack of substitute teachers (subs). 

Along with the district’s decision to enact a five-day pause, state leaders have since suspended the “Test to Stay” program and have given local school districts the authority to have four online learning days over the next two weeks. 

ASD Superintendent Shane Farnsworth began Thursday’s meeting by presenting data to the board members. In his opening presentation, Farnsworth stated that the district had not seen a correlation between rising COVID cases and student absenteeism. Farnsworth cited the lack of substitute teachers as the district’s most significant issue and not COVID rates among students. 

“We still have some significant challenges. I think a majority of those challenges are the sub-fill rate. That is affected by COVID but also labor shortages and other challenges. I have looked at our fill rates and other school districts, and they are fairly consistent. Our sub-fill challenges are not specific to Alpine School District,” said Farnsworth.  

ASD had 421 substitute requests today (Jan. 20), and 135 of those requests went unfilled.

Board member Ada Wilson then asked, “What are we doing to help the sub problem?”.

Farnsworth replied that the most effective solution has been lowering the qualifications to becoming a sub while still ensuring fingerprinting and background checks are part of the process.

“We’ve adjusted sub pay in the past, and it hasn’t seemed to make a significant difference,” said Farnsworth.

Substitutes earn between $80-$110 per day in the Alpine School District.

“A secondary gig is a much easier gig. It’s generally a canvas assignment, studying for a test, taking a quiz or writing a paper. I was in a second grade class today, and it’s a lot of work. It’s full-on cardio. It’s a thousand things at once,” said board member Julie King who represents the Eagle Mountain area.

Although the shortage of substitutes was at the forefront of the discussion, board members who substitute teach themselves spoke for the teachers and the extra workload they’ve taken on this school year.

“We’re burning out our teachers. A lot of teachers aren’t getting their prep time, they’re not getting a lunch, they can’t go to the bathroom during the day because they’re covering recess duty or another class during their break,” said board member Amber Bonner.

Board member Bateman appealed to parents, “Please consider the effect of your actions. When we did Friday off and Tuesday off [last week], I saw several people saying, ‘let’s go to Disneyland,’ ‘let’s go to St George,’ ‘let’s go to the beach.’ My friends, that wasn’t the intention, and it isn’t helpful,” she said.

“I’m unwilling to listen to any more insults being hurled at teachers. I would love to call our community to action. Show up to a school and say, ‘I’m here for an hour.’ Wipe down lunch tables, be a duty guard. You could even serve lunch. I would like for us to focus on what we can do,” Bateman continued. “The number of parents who are sending their sick kids to school and saying they’re fine, that’s not ok either. I’m not paying teachers hazard pay.” 

While the board members sounded off on the current situation, some members presented possible solutions.

Sara Hacken, a board member, offered ideas she heard from parents, including a campaign to encourage parents to get their children vaccinated, promote mask-wearing in school and sporting events, hold district-sponsored vaccine clinics on-site, enroll in the new free federal COVID test program and reach out to the Utah County Commissioners to understand their positions.

“The recommendation from the IHC people I’ve talked to is that all principals should take a look at their schedules. If there are any meetings, clubs, assemblies, or activities, postpone them for a few weeks. Don’t do the big dance on Feb. 14. Can you put it off a week or two to buy some time until this spike is over,” said Hacken.

Board member Bateman also stated she would like to discuss the possibility of giving teachers Wednesdays or Fridays off moving forward to battle teacher fatigue and allow more preparation time. The next official board meeting is Tuesday, Jan. 25.

To conclude the meeting, board member Sarah Beeson expressed her displeasure with the emergency meeting and questioned its purpose.

“If this meeting was scheduled because principals are having a hard time and we need to help them out, then I would be happy to be here today, but this was board-driven. It makes me a little upset that we’ve taken the time of our staff; we’ve upset patrons and caused mayhem,” said Beeson.

“Last week, when we had a meeting, I had a total of 4 emails from patrons. After this emergency meeting, we have thousands of comments, and we have upset our public. I apologize on behalf of the board that we have caused your family anxiety and angst,” continued Beeson.

“We were elected to be reasonable. We were elected to make sure we keep our heads about us when other people lose theirs. I’m being blunt. I know I’m speaking hard words and don’t mean to be rude, but that’s how I feel. I want our teachers to know we trust you. We know you love your kids. We know you show up when it’s difficult. That isn’t lost on anyone.” concluded Beeson. She shared support for keeping the current plan set forth by the district superintendent and staff.