The inaugural day of any school year is always cause for a mixed bag of emotions: Bright smiles, nervous laughter — and, of course, fearful tears. This year, though, all the feels may be out in force as Canyons District starts the school year in an unprecedented era.
For the 2020-2021 school year, Canyons’ first day of school — the District’s 12th since its 2009 founding — is Monday, Aug. 24. Initially, Canyons schools were slated to open Monday, Aug. 17 — but that date was pushed back to give more time for teachers, principals, parents, and students more time to prepare for a school year unlike any other.
Yes, the first day of school will look a little different for students this fall, says Canyons Superintendent Dr. Rick Robins. Face coverings will be required. Desks and tables will be placed apart as much as possible. A significant number of students will learning from remote locations. And cleaning crews will be a common sight throughout the District.
“Our commitment to keeping all students safe, learning, and growing endures,” said Canyons Superintendent Dr. Rick Robins. “The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the value of strong school-to-home connections as we pull together as a community, each of us doing our part, to promote health and wellness while also re-engaging in learning.”
As CSD opens for the first time of the year, and for the first time since the governor-ordered March “soft closure” of Utah schools to help stop the spread of COVID-19, the spate of “firsts” will continue with CSD teachers who are helming classes for the very first time and principals who are starting their first days as the top instructional leaders of their school communities.
Even though they are starting their careers in the midst of a global health crisis, first-year Canyons teachers say they feel prepared for the demands of the profession.
“We spent the last four years of our program being trained to do everything,” said Jonah Glenn, a Midvale Middle social studies teacher whose alma mater Iowa State University prepared him to teach online and in-person classes. His college courses that focused on how to infuse technology into his instruction will aid greatly if Utah schools once again pivot to online-only learning.
To answer the national teacher shortage, and to attract the best and brightest to Canyons classrooms, the CSD Human Resources Department has forged a relationship with the education college at Iowa State, and some of this year’s new hires chose to relocate to Utah because of their great experience student teaching or doing a practicum with CSD.
Madison Price, a new kindergarten teacher at East Midvale Elementary School and also an Iowa State graduate, admits she was a bit nervous to start her first year, given the threat of the global pandemic along with the challenges of being a new teacher.
“I’ve found peace when I call the parents and hear one of my little students giggling in the background,” said Price. “And when I meet staff from my school and realize we are all in this together, and finally when I feel supported by a District that puts students first.”
“CSD has helped me to feel confident about returning to school, because I know they are doing everything to keep everyone safe,” Price said, referring to the District’s $1 million investment in cleaning supplies and Personal Protective Equipment for teachers and staff.
Hannah Mourigan, a new fifth-grade teacher at Edgemont Elementary School and newly minted graduate of Utah Valley University, says she feels confident and safe as she prepares to enter the classroom for the first time.
“It’s a mix of excitement and nerves, basically,” said Mourigan. “I think Canyons School District has handled this the best. They’ve been very realistic about their expectations and the precautions they’ve put in place.”
Despite the hurdles, these first-year teachers can’t wait to meet their students.
“It’s going to be a continuous cycle of feedback and adjusting and being able to adapt,” she said. “If we do our jobs right the students will respond in a positive way.”
Few people are more excited to welcome students back to school than Canyons principals, especially for those stepping into the role of school principal for the first time this year.
Four principals in CSD —Eric Gardner, Deidre Walbeck, Michalle Snarr, and Scott Walker —hit the ground running in their first year as a principal.
“Since they hired me at the end of April … It’s (been) just go, go, go,” said Gardner, the former Mount Jordan Middle Assistant Principal who is the new principal at Bella Vista Elementary. “I feel like we are ready to roll, and we have a safe learning environment to welcome the kids back into.”
Snarr, who has taken on the leadership role at Edgemont Middle School, says her first year as principal will be spent encouraging students to “take care of themselves and one another.”
“We are building a community that comes together and does their part to wear face coverings, wash hands, and help each other,” said Snarr. “It’s a wild ride and it’s unlike any other in our history. We are developing plans and systems with no history to draw from.”
These principals have worked tirelessly to prepare buildings for safety. They’ve created school-specific safety plans that include which direction students should walk in the hallways and where they should sit during lunch breaks. They’ve maximized space in buildings, led professional development classes for teachers, answered questions of parents and students.
Principals recognize nerves may be a little heightened due to the nature of the school year, and they vow to support parents and students. “We are doing everything we can to follow the state’s guidelines and keep everyone safe,” says Walker, the new Sandy Elementary Principal. “But we are also very aware of how important it is to maintain a warm, welcoming, enjoyable environment.”
Walker said he’s grateful for the teachers of the Sandy Sharks. “There’s no way I can do this by myself,” he said. “I have been super impressed as the teachers have returned with their willingness to step up. It’s a team effort in the whole building.”