Washington County students, parents react to schools reopening, mask mandate

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ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4 News) — After six months, tens of thousands of students in Southern Utah returned to their classrooms Thursday morning.

As students walked into schools, navigating a new kind of world, some parents tell ABC4 News they may be worried about their kids’ health, but they’re also so grateful to return to “some kind of normalcy.”

“My daughter could not wait to go back,” Brooke Hill, a mother of a second-grader and preschooler from St. George, said. “She was awake at 6 a.m. and had her outfit picked out two days ago.”

“My kids have been very sad and really lonely,” St. George mom Erin Krueger said. “Socialization is such a huge part of childhood. Figuring out how to navigate complex relationships with other people, how to be able to disagree in a good and constructive way, it’s all very important to become better functioning people.”

The Washington County School District is the first in the state to reopen and one of the very few in the state to provide the option for full-time, five days a week in-person instruction. Administrators say their goal is to keep their schools open and be able to help students both academically and emotionally.

“We can get the kids in class and get that normalcy back in their life,” said Steve Dunham, director of communications for the district. “We can get the counseling staff available and the wellness rooms open where we can help them out. We can start helping the whole child again.”

Dunham said the traditional Monday through Friday schedule is what the majority of parents want, according to a recent survey. Washington County schools are anticipating at least 95 percent of students in classrooms either full-time or via blended learning, a combination of virtual and in-person classes.

School officials gave out two masks to each student at the start of the school day, which will be required for most of the day: on buses when arriving at and leaving school, in classrooms, in common areas, and in transition periods.

“We’re treating the masks just as we would a dress code policy. They need to be in compliance or they can’t be in school,” Dunham said. “We will be enforcing that in every school building in our district.”

Face coverings will not be required during lunch or recess. Occasional exceptions will be determined on an individual basis for qualifying health conditions, according to the district. Some parents have chosen to keep their kids home because of the mask mandate.

“Covering their faces, I just don’t think that’s mentally healthy,” Rachel Halgren, who is homeschooling her kids in St. George, said. “It’s just not something I’ll subject my kids to.”

“We’ve tried to get them in the habit of wearing their masks and talk to them about not arguing if someone asks them to put their mask back on or with other kids either,” Krueger said. “All the kids are trying to learn how to wear the masks, how to sanitize their hands, so let’s just be kind. We’re all trying to figure out this how to navigate this new world.”

Staff are working to disinfect daily, including high touchpoints such as drinking fountains, doorknob, counters, desktops, and electronic devices. Teachers will encourage consistent hand washing and sanitizing in classrooms.

Friday will be an early-release schedule for all grades K-12 for teacher and staff professional development and training and deep cleaning of schools. Elementary, intermediate, and middle and high schools will be let out at 1:15 p.m., 11:45 a.m., and 12:30 p.m. respectively.

Parents who may have opted out of in-person schooling had several options, including virtual at-home learning, online classes through Utah Online, or a blended in-person and virtual combination.

With virtual learning classes, students would attend from their home, using a curriculum facilitated by a WCSD teacher, which can include long-term or short-term absences including a quarantine period. Students taking full-time online classes through Utah Online are required to withdraw from their neighborhood school.

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