Payson schools faced a daunting challenge — how to bring kids back while mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
Turns out, teachers just need a little help from their friends.
Donors, including the MHA Foundation, teamed up with administrators to not only provide masks, sanitizers and other supplies — they also helped create a mask-wearing culture in class — where everyone’s “back together.”
The state and federal government left the district largely on its own on to figure out how to bring kids back safely. The state set three benchmarks measuring the spread of the virus in the community — but left all the tough decisions up to the school board.
The district has little guidance on things like how to keep the 2,200 students and 300 faculty and staff safe once they showed up.
Fortunately, the district got some help from the community.
“MHA (Foundation) called and asked what they could do for us in re-opening for in-person learning,” said Linda Gibson, Payson Unified School District superintendent.
Together with Jennifer Smith, a parent and the MHA Foundation program development chair, Gibson sought to address re-entry to school during a pandemic.
The first issue: safety.
“If you don’t feel secure, then you can’t process learning,” said Smith.
For seven months, students and their parents have struggled with distance learning and the emotional toll of not seeing teachers and friends. This made coming back an adjustment, especially when you throw in mask wearing and social distancing.
“We have been taken away from all our norms,” said Smith.
She said separation from loved ones, attending church remotely, and avoiding people in general have all threatened students’ social and emotional well-being.
“2020 is upside down,” said Smith.
Gibson and Smith decided to go beyond providing personal protective equipment and hygiene supplies. The district also needed to create a culture of support to protect everyone on campus.
The partnership launched “Back Together” as a motto, complete with a video to distribute on social media.
“The theme was intentionally gratitude,” said Smith of the message.
In the video, PUSD students, parents and staff expressed their gratitude at getting back together after seven months of closed campuses.
The week before Oct. 12, the first day of classes, the video spread around social media.
“The idea behind the gratitude theme, if you are experiencing gratitude actively or passively, you cannot be any of the negative emotions,” said Smith.
Then, the group looked at the day-to-day needs of returning to school safely. There were many, including shutting down water fountains. The state required PUSD to present a plan it had created in order to qualify to open.
To solve that problem, the foundation purchased water bottles that passed school requirements (they must be clear) and provide enough ounces of water to make it through the day.
Masks, hand sanitizer and stickers with the Longhorn and Back Together logo in purple were wrapped in a gift bag for students the first week of school.
During the second week, the foundation provided T-shirts emblazoned with the Back Together logo.
“The T-shirts are intended to be great morale boosters,” said Smith.
The foundation purchased shirts not just for every student, but for “every cafeteria worker” and “every bus driver” to make sure anyone who visits a PUSD campus feels a part of the solution.
“It was so generous, so kind,” said Gibson, but not everyone received a gift at the same time, as each school site decided how to organize distribution. This delayed some staff from receiving T-shirts. The water bottles and gift bags were only for students.
“So, you know how it feels really good to be part of a group — especially when the adults were part of the group with you?” said Smith — that’s the inclusion, hope and fun she, Gibson, the school district and foundation sought to create through the message of Back Together.
Gibson said the first week back went great.
“PUSD was ready and anxious to have kids back,” said Gibson. “They were greatly missed by all PUSD staff members. The kids are why we are here. Without them it just doesn’t feel right.”