Public schools in Box Elder County plan to welcome students back into their classrooms in time for the upcoming academic year with shorter school days at the outset, a long list of measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and a plan to handle any infections or outbreaks that may occur.
The Box Elder School District Board of Education has approved its plan for reopening schools on Aug. 31. Each school district in the state is required to submit its plan for the upcoming school year to the Utah State Board of Education by Aug. 1.
“We have a plan,” District Superintendent Steve Carlsen said. “We feel like we’ve got a handle on it as long as the target doesn’t move too much.”
Under the district’s plan, schools will be operating on four-hour days beginning at their regular morning times for the first two weeks. Carlsen said this will help ease students into the new, state-mandated face covering requirements while allowing time in the afternoon for schools to be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. The shorter days will also offer some respite from the late-summer heat in a district in which most school buildings do not have air conditioning systems.
Carlsen said the plan is designed to be flexible, allowing for adjustments on the fly to adapt to specific needs and locations, as well as to the current coronavirus situation in the county.
“We’ve got to be nimble because one day somebody tests positive, and just like that they’re going to have to go online,” he said.
The district will offer an online-only option for families that don’t want to send their children back to school on Aug. 31. Those who go that route will have the option to reevaluate and put their kids back in the classroom at the beginning of the next trimester or semester.
With more time to plan, Carlsen said the online-only option will be more robust than what was offered this past spring, when schools and teachers had to scramble almost overnight to put a plan in place to finish out the 2019-20 school year. He said there will be teachers assigned specifically to teach the online curriculum, and “we feel we can have them right on par with where they need to be” to resume in-person learning when they are ready.
Under the new plan, students who show symptoms of illness at school will be isolated in a waiting room until they are picked up and taken home. Contact tracing will be done for anyone who tests positive for coronavirus. The response will depend on how much time an infected student spent inside the classroom, as well as how many people the student came in contact with.
“If it is found early in the day, we might just have to have only that student go into quarantine,” Carlsen said. “If they were there all day, the whole class might have to quarantine.”
Teachers who test positive will have to go into a 14-day quarantine during which they will teach online as long as they feel well enough to work.
He said the system will be easier to manage in elementary schools, where students spend most of the day in one classroom with one teacher. It becomes more complicated at the junior high and high school levels, where students typically spend time in multiple classrooms with several different teachers over the course of a single day.
“We are going to have hotspots throughout the district,” he said. “We hope we can contain a hotspot to one class (in the elementaries). In the secondaries, it could be two classrooms, three classrooms, or the whole school.”
In the secondary schools, the plan calls for teachers to spray disinfectant on all desktops and other common surfaces after each period, having each student wipe down his or her desk before leaving.
“It’s not just about keeping yourself safe,” Carlsen said. “It’s also about keeping your friends and classmates safe.”
The Box Elder School District received $800,000 through the federal CARES Act to purchase supplies to support the new precautions. The district has ordered dozens of “ionizer wands” — spray guns that dispense an antibacterial mist that fully coats the surfaces it comes into contact with — for doorknobs, handrails and other commonly touched surfaces, as well as hand sanitizer dispensers for classrooms.
Precautions won’t be limited to classrooms. Secondary students will not be assigned lockers, and are encouraged to store books and supplies in their own backpacks. Assemblies with large numbers of people are out, and extracurricular activities will follow Utah High School Activities Association guidelines. Lunch breaks will be staggered to cut down on the size of lunchtime crowds.
School buses are one of the biggest areas of concern. The confined space inside a bus makes physical distancing practically impossible, and many bus drivers are older and therefore at higher risk for potentially fatal outcomes if infected.
While some classroom environments might allow for enough distancing that students and teachers will be allowed to temporarily pull their masks down from their noses and mouths, there will be no such leeway on buses. Carlsen said enforcement will work much like the school dress code, and students who refuse to wear a mask while on a school bus will be sent home.
“Going to school is a right. Busing and transportation is a privilege,” he said. “If you want to get on the bus, you have to wear a mask.”
There is also ample concern for older teachers and anyone who might have a compromised immune system. Carlsen said the plan allows teachers to stay in the front of the classroom instead of walking around to talk one-on-one with students.
“There’s an old saying that one teacher on their feet is worth two on their seats,” he said. “We’re going to try to be more flexible with that kind of thing.”
Schools have the opportunity to adjust the plan to meet their particular needs while following guidelines. Special education students, as well as those involved in speech or dual-immersion language classes, present unique situations that will be addressed.
Last week, the state carved out an exception to allow areas that are in the “orange,” or moderate-risk phase, to reopen schools with mask mandates and other precautions in place. Since Box Elder County and most of the state have remained in the “yellow,” or low-risk phase, Carlsen said it seems unlikely that local schools will have to close again like they did at the beginning of the pandemic.
“I’m thinking it’s going to have to get much more drastic before the governor shuts us totally down again,” he said.
Correspondent Sandra Neff contributed to this article.
On a sweltering, early summer day last month, the parking area at Spiral Jetty was bustling in the middle of the week.
Vehicles sported license plates one might expect to see – several from Utah, one from Idaho – but at least one car had traveled much farther.
Best friends Lindy and Arielle (last names withheld at their request) were spending their summer break from college as cross-country travelers from Vermont to California, making numerous stops along the way. They had read about and seen pictures of Spiral Jetty, and the legendary landscape art project along the northern shore of Great Salt Lake appealed to their own artistic sensibilities, so they decided to exit I-80 and head into the desert. The detour had gone smoothly, thanks in part to the recently improved gravel road.
“It’s kind of the middle of nowhere, but we like that,” Lindy said.
Western Box Elder County has always been a place where people can expect to find solitude.
A sign along Highway 30 near Snowville warns westbound drivers that the next services are more than 100 miles away. The area is hemmed in on the south, east and north by major interstate freeways, but few roads interrupt the vast expanse of mineral-encrusted playas, rolling rangeland and rugged mountains.
Despite the desolation and remoteness, or perhaps because of it, locals have noticed an uptick in visitors to the west desert in recent years. With concerns about the new coronavirus impacting summer travel plans, more people are looking for physically distanced vacations and eschewing more well-known destinations for less-visited locales.
For decades, the remote parts of Box Elder County didn’t see many visitors outside of railroad buffs coming to visit the Golden Spike site and other historic rail artifacts around the county. In recent years, however, increased publicity for sites like Spiral Jetty and the Sun Tunnels have been attracting more people from beyond the borders of the county and state.
“It’s not just the railroad,” County Tourism Director Joan Hammer said. “People are coming to see some of the other things we have to offer.”
A lack of services and amenities has kept places like Spiral Jetty, Devil’s Playground and Locomotive Springs relatively free of crowds. But as visitation gradually increases, interested parties are looking to invest in improved signage and roads, as well as restrooms at some of the more regularly visited spots.
The Public Lands Equal Access Alliance, an Ogden-based nonprofit that lobbies for off-highway vehicle access, is one of the groups getting involved. Glen Olsen, the group’s president, said PLEAA has been working to obtain grants through Utah State Parks to install signs, kiosks and maps to help people find their way.
“There really isn’t anything available out in Box Elder County for these types of things, so we’re just working to help rectify that,” Olsen said.
PLEAA has been actively involved in most of Utah’s popular trail networks, having recently finished a two-year project to improve signage on the Shoshone system in Cache and Rich counties.
Perhaps the biggest draw of the west desert is its OHV trail offerings. Devil’s Playground, which features several trails winding among bizarre rock formations, is already a well-known spot and is conveniently located next to Highway 30. However, as more people have discovered the potential of Box Elder County and started exploring more, it has led to some problems.
Olsen said the county is still largely uncharted territory for the greater OHV community. There isn’t an organized, integrated trail system similar to what can be found in some other parts of Utah.
“There’s been several places people focus on, but Box Elder County for a lot of OHV people is still a mystery,” he said. “They don’t understand the layout or where things are, and there’s no facilities, so people are hesitant to go there.”
Some who travel there in search of a new riding experience end up getting themselves in trouble in an unforgiving landscape.
“There’s been some issues in Box Elder County with people being hurt, and search and rescue not being able to find them,” he said. “Even if they have (cell phone) coverage and they’re broke down, they get confused trying to tell somebody where they are.”
Olsen said the plan is to put signs on the ground and create an overall trail map of the area. Different trail segments would be numbered to correspond with points on the map, helping people find their way and know where they are at all times.
Coordinating everything with the various state, federal, county and private land interests is the biggest challenge in the process.
“There’s a lot of work to do and it’s not going to happen overnight,” Olsen said. “We want to make it so people can recreate safely – that’s the bottom line.”
In another potential boost to ATV-related tourism in the county, officials are working on joining the High Desert Trail system, with the ultimate goal of providing an opportunity for people to ride from the southern border of the state near St. George all the way to the Idaho line.
The High Desert Trail taps into existing networks like the popular Piute trail system. Hammer said the concept originated in Beaver County, which already has a well-organized network of trails.
As the network started to grow and expand into Tooele County over the past couple of years, she said her counterpart in Beaver County called last year to talk about continuing the effort north into Box Elder County to create a true, end-to-end statewide route.
County Planner Scott Lyons got involved in determining the best route through the county. One of the biggest challenges was finding a place to cross I-80, and it was ultimately decided that going through Wendover on the Utah-Nevada border was the best option.
Steering trail users toward Wendover gives people an opportunity to gas up, spend the night and find other resources on the remote route, Lyons said.
The route will follow the eastern edge of the Pilot Mountains, one of just two main north-south roads in the area (the other leads into the Utah Test and Training Range, a military area where public access is restricted). It heads up through the old railroad town of Lucin, passing near the Sun Tunnels and making its way to Grouse Creek, where a trailhead and staging area on a piece of county property is in the works.
Lyons said a final leg to complete the statewide route is yet to be determined. Officials are looking at different options for connecting into the Raft River Mountains near Park Valley, and eventually over to the Idaho state line.
Hammer said becoming part of the High Desert Trail presents a lot of opportunity for bringing more visitors and recognition to what Box Elder County has to offer.
“For me, the fact that this is a statewide project is really exciting,” she said. “People are used to riding ATV trails in Beaver, Piute, Sevier counties – places with long-existing trails that have hardcore followers. To be a part of some of those, to tap into some of those groups that have never been able to experience what we’ve got up here, that’s an exciting new audience that we would be happy to have up here.”
Tremonton’s annual City Days events have been modified to allow for social distancing this year, but organizers haven’t let the coronavirus stop them from putting on a host of activities to celebrate the city’s heritage.
“We have been closely monitoring the ever changing COVID-19 pandemic and have made several adjustments to keep the community safe, while at the same time, offering activities to bring the community closer together,” the city stated in a press release. “We have eliminated mass gathering areas such as the vendor booths, concert, and high contact activities but will still offer participant-based activities.”
The good times started last Friday with a softball tournament and home-run derby, followed by a drive-in movie at the fairgrounds on Monday, July 20 and a cornhole tournament on Tuesday.
If you missed those activities, there’s still plenty to enjoy through the rest of this week.
This year, the main community participation activity is the Tremonton Golden Spike Challenge, a scavenger hunt-type activity where teams compete by posting photos/videos to engage with others from the community for amazing prizes offered from local businesses. The challenge is offered on the smartphone app GooseChase. It started on Monday, but teams can still sign up to participate through Friday.
Thursday will feature a pickleball tournament at the fairgrounds. Preregistration is required to participate.
The celebration culminates on Saturday at Jeanie Stevens Park with a food truck roundup from 4 to 10 p.m., where people can come and get dinner to take home or have a family picnic in the park. From 5 to 10 p.m., lawn games will be available for families to check out and play.
A fireworks display will begin at 10 p.m. and can be seen from Jeanie Stevens Park, the fairgrounds parking lot, or from most homes in town.
Attendees are asked to social distance in at all activities to help keep the risk of COVID-19 to a minimum.
“Now more than ever, our community needs a little normalcy, something to look forward to,” said Zach LeFevre, Tremonton recreation and events manager. “While events, programs, stores and everyday life has been shut down all around us, we need something to allow us to socialize and come together as a community, in a safe way.”
Visit tremontoncity.org/city-days for more information.
Heading into Utah’s annual state holiday weekend, officials are reminding people to be careful with fireworks and other activities as summer revelry is putting a strain on law enforcement, first responders, and search and rescue teams.
State and local regulations allow fireworks to be lit from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. today through Saturday, with the hours extended to midnight on Pioneer Day Friday, July 24. Brigham City, Perry and Willard have all implemented restrictions for certain parts of their respective cities, while those in the northern part of the county are adhering to county and state rules.
With summer fire restrictions now in effect, fireworks are only allowed within city limits and on private property. Tremonton City will hold its annual City Days fireworks show at 10 p.m. Saturday at Jeanie Stevens Park.
Officials are urging caution for people planning to light their own fireworks, even if following all rules. The danger was highlighted on July 4, when a house fire started by errant fireworks in Garland took firefighters more than four hours to extinguish. No one was injured in the blaze, but the house at 465 N. Main St. sustained major damage.
An ongoing heat wave has raised the danger of wildfires beyond the conditions that existed on July 4, so an even higher level of caution is now in order, Box Elder County Fire Marshal Corey Barton said.
Aside from fire danger, local law enforcement agencies are urging people to be careful when traveling as well. Search and rescue teams have been especially busy in recent days responding to several recreation vehicle accidents.
A press release from the Box Elder Sheriff’s Office on Sunday urged the use of good safety practices “as people continue to seek outdoor activities in the midst of the COVID pandemic.”
Travelers should let someone know where they are going, when they expect to be back, and tell someone if those plans change.
“Sheriff’s Office and Search and Rescue Teams need to know where to start looking for you if the need arises,” the release states.
Sunday’s press release provided some details of a one-car accident at 7:45 p.m. Saturday in Garland in which someone driving recklessly crashed his car into a canal along 4400 West. The vehicle was completely submerged, and while the driver was able to get out with only minor injuries, a search and rescue dive team had to be called in to help retrieve the vehicle from the water, placing additional strain on responders during an already busy time.
The driver was arrested and booked into the Box Elder County Jail on DUI charges.