Since classes resumed in the fall, teachers, administrators, students and parents have been bracing for the possibility that their school would move to online-only instruction to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, educators and patrons are making that shift at Ridgeline High School in Millville.
“We started the year in August, meeting with our faculty, and the message right off at the beginning of the year was be prepared,” said Ridgeline Principal Brittany Foster.
Ridgeline High School will be moving to online instruction for two weeks beginning Monday, the Cache County School District announced Thursday. School officials originally anticipated making that decision on Friday, but Smith said by Thursday, it was apparent that the situation wasn’t improving.
“We just reached a point where we were getting more cases than we were dropping off the other end,” Smith said, so administrators “made the decision that our trend lines were such that we were better off to close the school.”
This week, the school surpassed the 15-student threshold at which the state recommends schools seriously consider moving to online instruction. The school district’s weekly report on Wednesday showed 18 cases for Ridgeline students, and that number was 20 by Friday afternoon and had been as high as 24 at one point as new positive tests were reported and old ones left the two-week self-isolation period.
The district announced the move to online learning via an email to parents on Thursday evening. School was still conducted in-person on Friday, giving educators the chance to distribute Chromebook laptops and WiFi internet hotspots to students who may need them.
“Teachers can give out work for the next two weeks, as well,” Smith said, “anything they need to get into the hands of the kids today.”
Foster said despite the switchover, Friday was much calmer than she anticipated.
“I thought that we would be inundated with phone calls,” Foster said, “and it was actually the slowest day we’ve had all week long.”
That should probably be taken with a grain of salt, though, because Foster’s had a very busy week. She said she was on the phone for the better part of last weekend helping with contact-tracing and getting phone calls about students who had tested positive. By Saturday, she realized a two-week dismissal of in-person classes was becoming more and more probable as she watched the number of coronavirus-positive students climb toward 15 while parents were still calling to report more.
Teachers have been preparing for this contingency all school year, though.
“Our teachers have been incredibly busy this year, working 10-, 12-hour days because they’re trying to support in-person instruction, support the students that are out on quarantine,” Smith said, “and then be ahead enough in the curriculum of getting it online so they’re ready for an eventuality like happened at Ridgeline this week, where we have to move online.”
Despite knowing these sorts of changes could be looming all year, it’s still been a bumpy couple of weeks for Ridgeline and other high schools. Starting Nov. 9, Gov. Gary Herbert postponed nearly all extracurricular activities for two weeks as part of a new emergency order. While the two-week period was chosen because it’s roughly the incubation period of the novel coronavirus, Foster said that was enough to remind some students of last March, when a two-week soft closure eventually turned into all-online learning for the rest of the school year.
“I think the hardest part is not knowing for sure, when we say, ‘Yeah, we’re going online for two weeks,’ there’s that panic that the students are having, and our teachers, that it’s not just two weeks, it might evolve into a longer period of time,” Foster said. “And that’s not what we want. We want students in school. We want to be in school, in person.”
School and health officials believe contact tracing indicates that little spread is happening inside classrooms themselves.
“From the investigating we’ve been doing, we’ve discovering most of the spread is not happening within our building,” Foster said. “It’s happening outside of our building when students are hanging out together at parties and they’re not wearing masks, and they’re having fun like teenagers want to have fun.”
Foster said she isn’t trying to tell teenagers to ignore their social impulses — but if they don’t follow coronavirus precautions, that could lead to stricter measures, like the governor’s current restriction on social gatherings with people outside of one’s immediate household.
“We just want to remind them: You can have fun, but do it safely by wearing a mask and being 6 feet away from each other,” Foster said.
Smith told the newspaper Wednesday that about half of the school’s active cases at the time were connected to the football team.
Two other schools in the district, Green Canyon High and South Cache Middle, reported 10 or more active cases as of Wednesday.
On top of all the health aides and nurses in the district working on contact tracing, a pop-up testing site was opened at Ridgeline this week to join the one at Green Canyon High School that opened last week. Tests are available to students and staff who were exposed at school, in a “low risk” setting (such as when masks were worn), who have no symptoms after quarantining for seven days. The sites are open by appointment Monday thru Friday from 4-6 p.m. as part of the state’s “Low Risk Test and Return” protocol.
Smith said of the approximately 280 tests administered at the sites so far, there were fewer than five positive results. Of the 133 tests administered for the Logan City School District, only one positive, but asymptomatic, student was found.
Herald Journal staff writer Kat Webb contributed to this story.