Park City School District won’t explain new policy prohibiting talk about vaccines

A November email from the district’s head of human resources to employees said the speech prohibition applied to all vaccines, not just COVID vaccines, as vaccines aren’t part of school curriculum.

Some teachers, especially science teachers, disagreed. When the policy was announced, some called it anti-science, and asked how they could teach subjects like history, health or science without mentioning vaccines.

Utah State Board of Education member Carol Lear, who is also an education law attorney, said school districts and local education agencies, known as LEAs, may legally alter state-approved curriculum and remove things they deem inappropriate.

“Under Utah law, LEAs, school districts and charter schools have the right to determine their own curriculum,” Lear said, “and the employees of those LEAs march to the beat of their employers.”

Lear added that it’s normal for districts to direct employees not to promote or endorse topics viewed as politically sensitive in K-12 schools, but forbidding discussion outright could tread into free speech territory.

The new directive came as COVID vaccines for children rolled out, prompting national, state and local health experts to recommend that schools and communities encourage and celebrate vaccines.

The district declined to explain the policy to KPCW, and the radio station then filed a public records request though Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act, known as GRAMA.

By law, government agencies must cite specific codes when denying records requests. Agencies are generally required to produce records except in certain clear-cut situations such as pending litigation. Responding to the records request, the district provided abundant material related to mask mandate enforcement. But it did not explain why it wouldn’t provide records about removing vaccines from local curriculum.

At the recommendation of a mediator in the state records office, KPCW asked the district to clarify why it won’t provide that information. The district did not respond.

The radio station’s next steps include additional attempts at mediation and a formal appeal, which could ultimately lead to a hearing with the state records office.

Parents also find themselves unable to get information about what’s happening inside schools.

Parent Sarah Altschuler said she had discovered a new policy restricting information at her child’s school.

“So I called Parley’s Park Elementary School and spoke to the secretary and I said, you know, ‘how many people, how many staff members, are out today?’” Altschuler exlained. “And she said, ‘actually, we just got a directive that we’re not allowed to disclose that information anymore.’ And I found that a little sketchy. I mean, I’m not asking for names. I’m not asking about students. I’m trying to ascertain like, the level of functioning of the elementary school.”

KPCW regularly covers public schools. As government entities, they’re led by elected officials who are accountable to voters. The Park City School District also takes the largest portion of property taxes of any taxing entity in Summit County, with a roughly $90 million operating budget and nearly 700 employees. It educates 5,000 students a year and impacts many tens of thousands more residents through their home values, a metric tightly linked to school district performance.

District officials haven’t responded to requests for comment for news stories since last November. The district’s attorney sent KPCW a letter saying the district wouldn’t engage with the radio station until the Summit County attorney’s investigation into mask mandate non-compliance at Parley’s Park Elementary School is complete.

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