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Holladay Journal

Lessons learned during pandemic ‘changed education forever’ in Granite School District

Aug 18, 2021 01:38PM ● By Heather Lawrence

Ben Horsley of GSD is pictured at a board meeting wearing a mask. Horsley said that the past year has “changed education forever.” (Granite School District)

By Heather Lawrence | h.[email protected]

Whether or not you’re superstitious, there’s no question that Friday, March 13 was a big day. That’s the day the governor announced a “soft two-week closure” of schools. When that closure stretched on for months, we all found out that what goes on in schools impacts our society and economy. 

Granite School District is the third largest district in Utah, and their website reports they serve roughly 67,000 students and employ 7,500 people. Ben Horsley, communications director, said that because of Covid-19, “Education changed forever, for better or worse, and the impacts will be seen for decades.”  

Horsley said GSD has always had a distance learning option, but in 2020 it was kicked into high gear. That gave them a crash course in what works and what doesn’t.  

“At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, we had about one third of our students doing distance learning. By the end of the year, it was about 18%. We anticipate that 3-5% will still be utilizing distance learning this coming school year,” Horsley said. 

They started with a dual modality approach, where teachers were required to do in-person and online instruction. That stretched many teachers beyond their limits, forcing them to work unsustainably long days.    

Millions of dollars in rescue funding was recently approved by the federal government for Utah schools. With Granite’s portion of the funding, they will hire dedicated teachers for online instruction. It will be available for all students K-12. 

Horsley said that kindergarten enrollment for fall 2020 was the lowest it had been in decades, which he thinks was a direct response to the pandemic. 

“We learned that families’ needs vary widely. We do our best to offer flexible ways to meet those needs. We are concerned about transiency, child care and internet availability. We’re keeping the distance learning option for those families who need it,” Horsley said.  

The pandemic pushed Granite to rethink how they interact with parents. Parent teacher conferences went virtual this past year, which offered a lot of flexibility. “I think in the future you’re going to see ways where we can reach more parents using a distance option, like we did with parent teacher conference. 

“This will advance engagement with parents. I think schools will utilize online and Zoom resources. We’re looking at updating our systems to allow parents to connect with the teachers not just with Canvas, but in a variety of different ways,” Horsley said. 

These options also help students who are distance learning due to a long-term illness or home hospital situation. They can connect with a dedicated online teacher, and they’ll be able to hear and watch a lesson online live as opposed to a recorded one. 

“We feel strongly that despite our best efforts, in-person instruction will always have a higher success rate for the majority of our students. But we will offer a distance ‘self-paced’ option. We’re expanding those offerings, and students can take as many classes as they want to and go as fast as they want to. This is good for the self-motivated student,” Horsley said. 

So what if the pandemic had never happened and the district hadn’t been forced to grapple with all of these issues? 

“We were always looking at expanding our offerings, but this forced us to bring it all up to date as soon as possible. The silver lining to the pandemic was us being able to increase the options and individualization for students. 

“Our teachers also became much more versed and fluent in how to use the different online platforms,” Horsley said.

Granite will also use portions of their federal funding to create summer programs and address the mental and emotional issues brought on by the pandemic. 

“Education changed forever. That’s not just in terms of learning loss and trying to fill that gap, but also the emotional and mental health challenges as a result of isolation and lack of socialization. We have 40 million dollars in Covid aid that we’ll use to provide a variety of interventions for our students,” Horsley said.