In response to teachers and school nurses in the Ogden and Weber school districts struggling under the added pressures of COVID-19, Weber County stepped in with money to take some of the burden off of strained educators.
The Weber County Commission approved agreements that would give the districts access to a total of $4.6 million in additional CARES Act funding in a meeting Tuesday. The move comes as a result of partnerships districts have been working to form with the county government, according to officials from both districts.
“I only wish that we could show you folks on film the genuine plea that Superintendent Stephens made on behalf of his teachers who are doing all they can to prepare in the morning, teach during the day and then only to stay at school or go home and get on a Zoom call for the rest of the night to teach those who aren’t able to come to school,” said Commissioner Jim Harvey in Tuesday’s meeting, speaking of Weber School District Superintendent Jeff Stephens’ advocacy for his district.
Harvey continued, “They’re burnt out, as well as the nurses who are absolutely overwhelmed through the system.”
The Utah State Board of Education’s COVID-19 School Manual mandates that every school in the state have a designated COVID-19 point of contact who is responsible for contact tracing. Both districts started the academic year with school nurses acting as their points of contact.
In the Weber School District, 15 nurses covered 45 schools, so each nurse performed contact tracing at an average of three locations. The Ogden School District employs three nurses for its 19 schools, meaning that, on average, nurses managed contact tracing at six schools.
“It’s dominated the vast majority of our time and efforts,” Karen Harrop, who oversees nurses in the Ogden School District, told the Standard-Examiner in October. She added that nurses in her district were working approximately 50-60 hours per week.
The neighboring Davis School District is the only district in Utah that has hired a contact tracer for each of its schools, which as the second largest district in the state amounts to 91. While the cost of contact tracers was partially covered by the district’s own CARES Act funding, the majority of the money came from the Davis County Health Department, which had received CARES Act funding from the county early on.
Weber County received three installments of CARES Act funding from the state, each of which was worth approximately $8 million, according to Treasurer John Bond. The county used its first and second installments to aid small businesses and nonprofit organizations. The third, Bond said, will go to larger public institutions throughout the county.
“Small business is the lifeblood of this community,” said Commissioner Gage Froerer in the Tuesday meeting. “That’s where our initial efforts and the dollars need to go first, not last. And that, quite frankly, as we know, wasn’t consistent across the state. A lot of counties did the opposite.”
At a Weber School District Board of Education meeting Wednesday night, Froerer again explained the county’s reasoning for starting with small businesses in disseminating CARES Act funding. He told the board that numerous people thanked commissioners, saying the money saved their businesses and families.
“The impact that this money has on Weber School District is no less dramatic than that,” Stephens said, expressing his gratitude to the commissioners.
Now that the districts are receiving additional CARES Act funding from the county, both are working on improving remote learning options for students and hiring contact tracers to relieve school nurses of that duty.
Weber School District Business Administrator Robert Petersen said the district, which will receive $2.75 million, so far has hired 17 COVID-19 points of contact but hopes to recruit as many as 30. Each secondary school will receive its own contact tracer and the remainder will spread out between elementary schools, according to district spokesperson Lane Findlay.
The help from the county, which amounts to $1.85 million, allows the Ogden School District to free up some of its own CARES Act funding to hire 10 points of contact, said Business Administrator Zane Woolstenhulme.
Ogden School District, however, will use the majority of its county assistance to bolster its online instructional infrastructure. According to Woolstenhulme, the district had a great need for additional software licenses and devices but didn’t have the budget to fulfill that.
“I don’t think we’d be able to do it without seriously cutting into other plans,” Woolstenhulme said. According to him, without the county’s help, the district may have had to delay one of its construction projects, which include the rebuilding of Horace Mann and T.O. Smith elementary schools as well as the renovation of Polk Elementary.
Of the 19 schools in the Ogden School District, 18 have been categorized as Title I by the Department of Education, meaning they have a high concentration of students experiencing poverty. Because of the income limitations of many of its students, the district has been working to help families access technology so students can participate in the increased amount of online coursework during the pandemic.
“A lot of (students) are limited by lack of internet, lack of having a computer, lack of all of these things,” Woolstenhulme said. “Without those things, it’s hard to do online instruction effectively. I think this is going to go a long way toward being able to meet those needs for every student who needs it.”
The Weber School District is also using the county’s CARES Act funding to improve its remote learning offerings. On Monday, the district opened a new, fully online alternative school called Weber Online, which serves grades K-12. The school has its own principal, faculty and staff.
In addition to providing more options for families who want to minimize their students’ exposure to COVID-19, the school is meant to relieve teachers of extra duties brought on by the pandemic.
Prior to Weber Online’s transformation into an alternative school, teachers were responsible for educating those who attended classes in person, short-term online students — primarily those who had been quarantined due to exposure to COVID-19 — and long-term online learners, which included students who opted that at least a portion of their classes be online. The long-term learners are now enrolled in Weber Online.
Officials from both districts expressed gratitude for the county’s role in helping to fund solutions to problems brought on by the pandemic, saying confronting the issues would have been difficult, if not impossible, without the help.
“We’re in a time as a country that there is great divisiveness and people are under pressure,” Stephens said at the board meeting Wednesday night. “I hope this is a demonstration of what things can be like when you come together and work together. The fact that we’ve been able to come together will make it better for children, for teachers, for families.”