New Canyons School District superintendent remains optimistic despite challenging transition times
Aug 25, 2020 02:54PM
By Julie Slama
Online schooling in response to COVID-19 pandemic. Earthquake and aftershocks along the Wasatch Front. Protests erupting in the streets. Masks required in Salt Lake County. Fire forcing Suncrest residents to evacuate to nearby Draper Park Middle.
“What’s next?” may be what many people are thinking, but Canyons School District new superintendent Rick Robins found a silver lining.
Robins said he is appreciative of the Utah lawmakers who decided to use the rainy day funds during the special session held in June. The result? Instead of being handed down a 2, 5 or 10% budget cut to public education, there is a 2% increase over this year’s base budget.
“I am so grateful to our legislature and our local legislators for stepping up to the plate and holding education harmless at a time when things are so uncertain,” Robins said. “What that means for Canyons is we’re able to go on and deliver first-class education and just a small sample size of that, to give you a little flavor of that, with that passing, Canyons was able to go ahead and add six new school nurses. And so, when you’re thinking about our students’ well-being, their health and their wellness returning to school what an awesome opportunity for us to complete that where if we were to face any of those budget cuts, that would not have been a possibility.”
As schools are expected to begin Aug. 17, Robins said it is a “fluid situation” and they will follow the guidelines of the governor, Salt Lake County Health Department, and Utah State Board of Education. As of late June, he said Canyons was planning for an in-person start, and if masks aren’t required, they would be recommended.
“It’s really important for everyone to understand that schools, not just in Canyons District, but across the state and the nation, will struggle to comply with 6-feet social distancing guidelines. Now having said that, what I have received from USBE (Utah State Board of Education) and from county health and the governor’s office is that if students are within 6 feet more than 15 minutes, then we would recommend that they mask up. We’re not going to require masks unless we’re told to by the health department or the governor’s office,” he said. “It presents a challenge, no doubt about it. We’re going to sanitize more often; our plans are to disinfect our buildings more often, all those things we can do. Masks will be provided for students and for teachers or employees. We’ll do everything we can to create the necessary distancing as possible, but it’s going to be impossible to comply with that 100%. We’ll do our best that way, there’s no way with the design of the buildings to ensure that students are 6 feet apart.”
While school may open, not all activities may be. While the Utah High School Activities Association regulates sporting events, Canyons Board of Education and the superintendent may make decisions about other activities.
“I would recommend that we start slower and what this really comes down to is contact tracing. If we do not have the ability to contact trace, for example, school dance, back to school night, or large assembly. If we don’t have the ability to contact trace then I’m asking or recommending that we either delay that for a future date or we look to an alternative way of doing that event,” Robins said. “I hope that everyone will be patient and considerate as we work through some of these issues. I think all of us want these activities to return. These activities are so important to so many kids and it really doesn’t matter what the activity is. For a lot of kids, this is their passion and it’s very important to them and their families. We’re going to do everything we can to see those things get off the ground.”
Families wishing to keep their children home to learn or have blended learning will be able to do that as online kindergarten through eighth-grade curriculum is being established this summer, he said. High school online curriculum already is in place.
While long-range goals are challenging during this time, Robins is focusing on his immediate goals of finalizing a re-entry plan and to support conversations about the social unrest in the country.
“I think it’s important that as a school community, we understand and recognize the issues that are going on with social unrest in the country and in our own communities,” Robins said. “I think it’s important that we listen more, we learn more, and respect each other more. It’s something we all want. I believe with all my heart that the solution to this issue is through education and it always has been. As a school community collectively, we need to help our kids understand each other better and learn from each other better. We need to be respectful of each other and that starts with me, and I’m right there and excited to lead that conversation.”
He hopes that Canyons Board of Education will approve reviewing the District’s curriculum and instructional practices, policies and procedures as well as student access to opportunities to ensure equity.
During his transition time, Robins received a call at 3 a.m. Sunday, June 28, notifying him that Draper Park Middle School would be used as an evacuation shelter due to a nearby fire.
“Just that event, in itself, reflects on the great collaboration that takes place in Canyons School District with their families—that in a given moment of need like that our schools are on the ready to support the families. There were district personnel that went out of their way at 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning to make sure those buildings were open and accessible. That’s such a great tribute to the community of how they can take care of each other. That’s a proud moment for all of us to relish on, that people really stepped up to support each other,” he said.
Robins was voted unanimously by the Canyons Board of Education April 14 to lead the District’s 34,000 students, replacing Jim Briscoe, who retired June 30. During June, Robins and Briscoe made decisions together.
Canyons Board of Education President Nancy Tingey is confident in the district’s new leadership.
“He is a proven leader in Utah public education,” she said. “I think he has a lot of great qualities that are going to benefit our district and help our district move forward, build on all the great things we have in place. I have every confidence that Rick can lead the district through into the new now. He has the experience, the skills, and the attributes to work with the other educators, with the Board, as we move forward.”
Robins comes from Fillmore, where he played point guard on Millard High School’s basketball team, quarterback on the football team and shortstop, pitcher and first base on the baseball team before deciding to pursue playing football in college. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Southern Utah University where he was inducted to the university’s hall of fame in 2013 after being a four-year starter at quarterback. He received his master’s degree from Grand Canyon University and a doctorate in educational leadership from University of Nevada - Las Vegas.
His 25 years in education began as a history teacher at Copper Hills High School in Jordan School District and he worked as an assistant principal and principal in the Alpine, Nebo and Juab school districts. He also has coached high school boys football and girls basketball. His love of sports continues to this day and he often runs 5 miles per day to “decompress.”
As Juab High School principal, Robins was named Utah’s high school principal of the year in 2012 by his peers.
Under Robins’ leadership as superintendent, Juab School District was inducted into the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools in 2015 and the district was honored by the National School Boards Convention by the Center for Digital Education as a top 10 winner in 2018.
While students were at home during the “soft closure” in response to COVID-19 pandemic, Robins made his rounds around the schools, meeting principals and admiring the campuses.
“He’s very positive,” Willow Canyons Principal Marilyn Williams said. “He expresses appreciation. He said this is his dream job.”
He’s looking forward to meeting students this fall. It may be getting to know them while supporting activities and watching games, or Robins, a self-claimed lifelong fan of Dr. Seuss, said he may also slip into an elementary school to read to students.
“It does not matter what age, we can always look to Dr. Seuss and find some wisdom,” he said. “I’d really like to get out and meet our students and meet our parents and our communities in person to understand their needs and what those needs and requests are. Relationships are at the core of everything we do, and it starts with our students. I hope that my time in Canyons and in other districts will exemplify that. At the end of the day it really is about doing what is best for our students and building relationship with each and every student that they feel part of their experience and they have goals and a pathway to achieve those.”