Utah School District’s Death Letter Template Is Not Unusual for Crisis Planning

Getty A security guard wears a protective mask as he monitors a coronavirus drive-thru test clinic at the San Mateo County Event Center on March 16, 2020.

Parents and teachers discovered that one version of the reopening drafts for the Canyons School District in Utah included a recommendation that crisis communication employees have a “template letter” ready in case a student or teacher died. The reference went viral on social media, but it’s not unusual at all for an organization to have a crisis plan in place in case someone dies. A newer draft of the district’s plans does not have that reference, as the reopening drafts are still in the planning phases.


A Reopening Proposal Draft from June 30 Recommended Template Letters In Case Someone Died, But This Is Normal for Crisis Planning

Photos of the proposed guidelines from a June 30 reopening plan went viral on Twitter and Facebook. However, these types of templates are often a normal part of crisis planning for any organization. Here’s one of the posts about the draft that was shared online.

Amy Thompson, one of the many people who shared screenshots of the proposal, wrote on Facebook that the authenticity of the document was confirmed by Elizabeth Payne, who is on the school board for a neighboring district.

The Canyons School District responded to an inquiry from Heavy, confirming that yes, that early draft was authentic. These are working drafts which are still in development and are changing as the school district receives input.

Dr. Rick Robbins, Superintendent of the Canyons School District, told Heavy:

We appreciate the opportunity to clarify information in an early working draft of our state-required back-to-school proposal, which is still being developed with input from parents, employees, students and many others. As part of a directive from the Utah State Board of Education to create a return-to-school plan, local Utah districts also are being required to prepare advance communications regarding outbreaks, illnesses, and other issues that would affect school operations. Yes, you are correct: This is a continuation of an outreach practice we already have in place. When a school community experiences any kind of tragedy, we move quickly to address questions and concerns, as well as provide information about counseling and other social-emotional supports provided by the school district. As for this specific language in the early draft, there was no ill-intent nor intent to politicize, but we certainly recognize the reasons for the concern. New versions of the proposal have been changed to reflect the feedback. All this said, we’re truly trying to follow the state’s return-to-school requirements while also working hard to be transparent, collaborative, safe, and well-prepared as we head into a school year unlike any other.”

On Facebook, a number of people shared that they saw the June 30 version before it was taken down. They said they found the document as part of the Canyons Board’s back-to-school proposal. On Twitter, several people saved the original PDF and posted it on separate webpages. Here’s one example:

You can view the full PDF that was shared on Twitter here. The document with the “death template” that’s gone viral was part of a June 30 draft for the reopening recommendations, and it was taken offline once a newer draft was available. As the Canyons School District clarified with Heavy, the drafts are being developed with input from parents, employees, students, and others. In response to input from these groups, the draft in the screenshots below has been revised. Here’s what part of the draft originally said:

Google Drive

Google Drive

Google Drive

Google Drive

The part that people were concerned about was on page 4 under Crisis Communication (the last screenshot in the group.) It lists a number of proposals for Crisis Communication under the heading of “District Recommended.” Among those proposals is a closure letter for parents, closure information for employees, Skylert message, exposure letter, distance learning plan information, template for a web item, template for social posts, and “Template letter for death of a student, teacher.”

It’s not unusual for a school district or any large organization to have a template letter or other plans in place for an unexpected death as part of their crisis communications plans. In fact, Canyons School District has a Crisis Response Manual published for 2017-2018 (long before COVID-19) that includes an entire section about procedures in case a student dies.

Canyons School District

Canyons School District

So it’s not unusual, but parents and others have still expressed unease on social media about the inclusion.


The Canyons School District’s Most Recent Draft Does Not Include the Template Letter Mention

On July 11, the Canyons District said on Twitter: “The Canyons Board of Education is reviewing the latest version of our proposed back-to-school plan on Tuesday, July 14. This version has been updated to reflect new guidance from state officials.”

The Canyons School District released a revised draft on July 9. You can find it by going to this link, clicking on Executive Study Session and Board Meeting (July 14), then clicking on View the Agenda.

If you then scroll down far enough, you’ll see #7D: “Canyons School District opening school action plan proposal.”

Canyons School District

Click on that, and you’ll see two links to the draft in its current form, updated on July 9. The July 9 PDF is currently here and publicly available for anyone to read.

A few minor things were changed since the June 30 version. Here are the screenshots for the first four pages for the July 9 version.

Canyons School District

Canyons School District

Canyons School District

Canyons School District

One of the changes is that the template letter in case a student or teacher dies has been revised. Under Crisis Communication it now reads:

Be prepared for locally-driven crisis response communications

In consultation with local health, pre-write/draft statements for varying situations regarding outbreaks, positive cases, etc.

Plan to include messaging to counter stigma and discrimination

This is part of the normal planning process, with changes to drafts being made as school districts receive input from parents, employees, students, and others.

The updated draft is being presented to the Board of Education on Tuesday, July 14, according to Canyons School District. A final version is expected to be ready before school starts on August 17.

The school district wrote on its website:

The new version of the plan, drafted with input from nearly every academic and operational department in Canyons District, teachers and families, includes some changes made after receiving new guidance from state government, education, and health officials.

The updated proposal — the final version of which must be submitted to state education officials by Aug. 1 — is subject to change based on decisions by state and local government leaders.

While the intent is to return to classes in the fall, the District is planning to provide online options. According to CSD’s current proposal, families who are not comfortable sending their children back to school, either for health or other personal reasons, will have the option to participate in CSD online learning. The plan calls for the District to issue online-enrolled students a device, plus arrange for connectivity, so the student can participate fully in online learning.

You can read the full agenda for the July 14 meeting here. A closed session will be held at 4:30 p.m., followed by a business meeting that starts at 7 p.m. local time.

The agenda notes: “If you would like to participate remotely during the patron comment period of the meeting of the Canyons Board of Education, please send via email your name and phone number to communications@canyonsdistrict.org by 5:00 p.m. the day of the scheduled meeting. In the email, please indicate the item or topic you wish to address. The Canyons District Office of Public Communications will then send you an email message with detailed information regarding how to access the teleconference system that will be used to facilitate the patron comments.”

A number of people are talking online about the draft.

Wendy Fry, an Iowa teacher, wrote a public post about the draft in one of the many online discussions on Facebook. She wrote, in part: “Schools have always had to have some sort of emergency plans for various situations. Included in those plans was always some sort of ‘serious illness’ crisis plan (in my mind, that always meant some sort of bad flu or stomach flu season). Unfortunately, sometimes a death of a teacher/staff member or student occurs and there needs to be a plan for what to do, such as how you notify students and staff, which counselors and clergy and other support you can call in, etc. As a teacher, sadly, we’ve had to use our plan a few times across the several districts I’ve worked at.”

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