School & District Management

1,000 Students, No Social Distancing, and a Fight to Keep the Virus Out

By Denisa R. Superville — January 14, 2021 4 min read
Dixie Rae Garrison, principal of West Jordan Middle School, in West Jordan, Utah.
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“It’s been a nightmare.”

That’s how Dixie Rae Garrison, the principal of West Jordan Middle School in Utah, describes the job of keeping everyone in the building safe during the pandemic.

Students and staff wear masks on campus. The school has three lunch shifts, with stickers on the benches so students know where to sit.

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Dave Steckler, principal at Red Trail Elementary School in Mandan, North Dakota, got and recovered from COVID and has dealt with the logistical issues around staff and students who were infected.
Dave Steckler, principal at Red Trail Elementary School in Mandan, North Dakota, got and recovered from COVID and has dealt with the logistical issues around staff and students who were infected.
Tom Stromme for Education Week

But with nearly 80 percent of the students in school four days a week—about 1,000 students—physical distancing is nearly impossible.

“The plan that my district chose did not do anything to mitigate COVID other than [mandating] wearing masks,” said Garrison, who would have preferred a hybrid system instead of four-days-a-week of in-person classes or stricter social distancing measures.

“There is no way for teachers to physically distance in class.”

About 30 students had tested positive for the coronavirus through November. And when school dismissed for the Christmas break in mid-December, there were 20 active cases—all traced to exposure outside the school, she said. On a single day, 13 teachers were absent because they had either tested positive or were in quarantine.

“It’s a big catch-up game,” she said. “A kid gets sick. They take them to get tested. Four or five days later, they find out they’re positive. Usually, the kids have been in school for a few days before they’re worried about having COVID-19.”

Dixie Rae Garrison, principal of West Jordan Middle School in West Jordan, Utah.

The school dutifully checks students for coronavirus symptoms and sends them home if they have a cough or fever, Garrison said.

“But it’s not foolproof,” she said. “A lot of the kids are asymptomatic, where the whole family goes to get tested and find out that it’s a kid who has been in school the whole week.”

Just before the Thanksgiving break—when the district finally switched to online learning for two weeks—about 40 percent of the students who were supposed to be taking in-person classes were doing remote learning because they were at home on quarantine or because someone in their family was sick or had been exposed, she said. On the first day back from the break, Garrison was informed of four new possible positive cases, one staff member and three students.

“It’s very traumatic for the kids. It’s almost like being given a ... pink slip from school.”

Along with the two assistant principals, Garrison creates a spreadsheet of every positive case. She has developed what she called “a monster sheet” with questions she asks students who test positive, including details like when they got sick, started showing symptoms, and were tested.

In recent weeks, the district also has asked principals to confirm reports of positive tests with the local health department.

“I’ve asked parents, ‘If you don’t mind, can you send me the positive results?” Garrison said. “That’s all the stuff we have to do on the front end to confirm a positive case.”

Garrison and her staff trace any contact from two days before the positive test. That requires notifying the teacher, getting the seating chart, checking the day’s attendance, and confirming that students were sitting in their assigned seats.

“We try to do it discreetly,” Garrison said. “We are trying to protect the identity of the individual who had the positive case. If you are in there measuring the tape around a desk, it’s clear [who is positive.]”

Under the policy in effect last semester, any student who had been within six feet of the infected student for an extended period was given a letter from the health department, asking them to quarantine. (Under a new state policy the quarantine is only required if the person had not been wearing a mask during the contact.)

In one case, the administrative staff had to break the news to 42 students in the auditorium. Parents were contacted to pick up their children, who would need to be quarantined.

“It’s very traumatic for the kids,” she said. “It’s almost like being given a ... pink slip from school.”

And despite administrators’ best efforts, there are some things they can’t control. Garrison has gotten calls from the local health department or the district nurse’s office notifying her that a student has tested positive days after the positive test.

“That’s very frustrating,” she said. “We would call that family and say, ‘Did so and so have COVID?’ They would say ‘Yes. We kept him home, but we did not think you needed to know.’”

That would set off a mad dash to find students possibly exposed to the infected child the last time he or she was in school.

Garrison praises her staff for doing everything it can to keep the school as safe as possible.

“We’ve had a very low case count, compared to other schools, and it was because we are enforcing the mask [mandate], and we were working like a fine-tuned machine with the sanitation procedures,” she said.

But she recognizes the toll those extra duties are taking on administrators and teachers alike and the cost of those distractions on everything from staff development to instruction.

“We want to get back to focusing on the teaching and learning,” she said.

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