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Salt Lake City School District to decide when junior high and high school can resume in person
State lawmakers and a district judge will be watching as the Salt Lake City school board meets tonight to see if it decides whether junior high and high school students can return for in-person learning next month.
A ruling from the court and a pending bill will both be based on whatever action comes out of the meeting.
The board had previously voted to delay reopening secondary schools until after all teachers had the opportunity to get the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. But with the new pressures, board members are meeting tonight to consider possibly changing their plans for the pandemic.
“From the very beginning, the board has talked about getting students back to the classroom with their teachers as soon as we felt we could safely and sustainably do that,” said Board President Melissa Ford.
“Our students have sat out and been excluded,” said attorney Ryan Bell. And he suggested that the district has broken the Utah Constitution in not giving students in all locations equal access to a quality education.
Bell called it “an epidemic of failing grades.” And one student, Ella Fiefia, testified about how it’s personally impacted her first year of middle school — causing her to get lower scores than she’s ever received before.
Lawyers representing the district, as well as the Utah Board of Education, pushed back, though, saying the decision on how to instruct students is a local one and is ultimately up to the Salt Lake City School District to decide what’s best.
Both Ford, the board president, and Larry Madden, the district superintendent, testified. They said in-person instruction is preferred, but they first want to ensure that teachers are safe. And now that some Utah educators have had the opportunity to get the first dose of the vaccine — about 1,100 in the district by the end of this week — Madden said he feels comfortable proposing that secondary schools reopen on a limited basis beginning Feb. 8.
He’ll be proposing a hybrid model to the full board Tuesday night. It will include having students come in to school on an alternating schedule, two days a week in person and the other three online, until the vaccine is fully rolled out in a matter of five or six weeks. The hope is to reduce the total number of kids in a building at one time.
“If we have the opportunity for teachers to get vaccinated and we feel it’s safe for them to return to the classroom, we can bring in students that are not being successful in the remote environment,” he said during the court hearing.
When the plaintiffs’ attorney argued that plan benefits teachers and not students, Madden said the hope is that when they do reopen, the district won’t have to open and shut and open and shut like others have in Salt Lake County when there’s been outbreaks in schools.
“We chose what we thought would be the best education we could provide,” Madden added.
After eight hours of arguments in the online hearing, 3rd District Judge Adam Mow said he wouldn’t make a decision until seeing what Salt Lake City school board members decided to do Tuesday night. That might make any ruling from the court moot, he noted.
Meanwhile, Utah lawmakers also turned up the pressure on the Salt Lake City district to return to in-person classes on the first day of the 2021 session.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, made SB107 public Tuesday. The bill says any student in a school district that doesn’t offer in-person classes can move to a school that does, and their portion of state funding will immediately follow them. That would apply even if they move to a private school, which it typically doesn’t, and wouldn’t require the usual year to take effect.
Weiler called the concept “backpack funding.” And it’s meant to encourage Salt Lake City School District not to lose any more money.
“The bill only takes effect if there’s not an option for in-person classes,” said Weiler, noting they have until Feb. 8. “We’re running out of school year, here. That’s the problem.”
The bill is set for debate in committee Wednesday. Lawmakers plan to advance the bill to the Senate floor, where it will likely sit as a looming threat if Salt Lake City does not open up its classrooms.
The extra money was offered for educating kids during the pandemic and Salt Lake City was being kept out as long as it stayed online. In negotiations late last year, the district agreed to reopen in person in exchange for teachers getting the bonus and the vaccine.
When the district made the deal, though, it was told its teachers would be vaccinated on Jan. 8 and 9. And it intended to reopen secondary schools on Feb. 8, about a week after educators would receive the second dose and be considered fully inoculated.
That caught the attention, too, of Senate President Stuart Adams, who explicitly addressed the Salt Lake City School District in his speech Tuesday on the opening day of the Legislature. He argued for a need to return to in-person schooling amid reports of “a 600% increase in students failing all classes, despite teachers’ best efforts” as the district continues with online coursework.
“We can’t let this happen in Utah,” Adams said. “Our kids’ futures are at risk. With teachers now having vaccination priority, Salt Lake City School District needs to start face-to-face instruction now and give each student the best opportunities to learn.”
Adams said later that he wants the school district and others to be in person because the spread of COVID-19 hasn’t been happening in the classroom, but in the community at large. But he said he’s not looking for ramifications for the school district if it doesn’t go back in person.
“That’s not something I’m after,” he told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “I just want kids to be able to get a good education.”
— The Salt Lake Tribune will update this developing story throughout the night. Tribune reporters Bryan Schott and Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.
Salt Lake City School District to decide when junior high and high school can resume in person /p>