SALT LAKE CITY — Noting Salt Lake parents and constituents are split on the best plan to return to school, the Salt Lake Board of Education postponed voting on a proposal that calls for online learning for the first quarter ending Oct. 30, with students starting the school year after Labor Day.
The board did vote Tuesday to start students’ academic year on Sept. 8, but postponed to a future meeting a decision on how instruction will be delivered.
Interim Superintendent Larry Madden clarified that if the board agreed to conduct school online initially that the district’s schools could participate in Utah High School Activities Association-sanctioned sports and activities.
The board’s discussion and approval of state-required assurances for reopening schools for in-person instruction comes after Gov. Gary Herbert’s announcement last week of a modification in the state’s color-coded coronavirus guidance that allows schools to open. The template of assurances addresses matters such as “enhanced environment hygiene and safety,” monitoring for incidents and how a district would close if it needs to due to an outbreak, among other issues.
The Utah State Board of Education does not approve local plans for reopening.
Madden said the pandemic has posed “the most unusual situation” for the school district and board.
“There are a lot of strong emotions. I am concerned that some of our constituents, people that maybe they haven’t been heard, and I want everyone to know that we do hear you and I understand that. Whatever decision we make, we want you to be able to attend the school of your choice and receive the best possible education. We do want your kids fully back in Salt Lake City School District schools. I hope that we’re all in this together,” Madden said.
Some board members spoke in favor of the plan proposed by Madden.
Board member Samuel Hanson says the plan was guided by science, compassion and care for human life. “I think it’s the right way to move forward,” Hanson said.
But others argued that based on hundreds of emails and other feedback that parents and educators are split on the best course on starting the school year safely and successfully.
“I don’t think that we’ve spent enough time engaging with our community or teachers, stakeholders with the board about how we’re going to do this and how we’re going to do it well,” said Board President Melissa Ford.
The plan envisioned teachers reporting to work in mid-August and ramping up to the start of the school year by meeting with parents and students in small groups, conducting assessments to determine how to bridge learning gaps resulting from last spring’s “soft closure” of schools, and working to ensure all students have access to electronic devices and internet access so they could fully participate in online instruction.
Board member Kristi Swett said if the district plans to rely on distance learning it “shouldn’t be on the backs of anybody else but this district.”
I don’t think that we’ve spent enough time engaging with our community or teachers, stakeholders with the board about how we’re going to do this and how we’re going to do it well.
–Salt Lake City School District Board President Melissa Ford
But others supported a return to the classroom.
“A BYU recent study indicated that masks do the job. We can prepare and protect our children if we send them to school,” said board member Mike Nemelka.
The new BYU analysis of more than 115 studies determined face masks are a powerful tool for stopping the novel coronavirus and controlling COVID-19.
The analysis, conducted by researchers in BYU’s College of Life Sciences, did not specifically address the use of masks in school. It found masks could accelerate the economic recovery from the pandemic. It also noted the importance of physical distancing, frequent hand-washing, rapid testing, and coordinated contact tracing to stem the spread of the virus.
Board member Michelle Tuitupou said parents need options. “That’s what they’re asking for,” she said. Tuitupou said she fears families will enroll their children in neighboring districts that do provide options.
Nemelka, meanwhile, said many parents have told him they will seek to enroll their children in charter schools if the district does not resume in-person learning this fall.
Others urged the board to err on the side of caution.
Board member Katherine Kennedy said constituents in her board precinct and teachers who contacted her largely support remote learning.
“I think that this is a dangerous and frightening disease. I don’t believe we know enough about this disease and I believe we should be conscious of that,” she said.
The board’s next scheduled meeting is Aug. 4 but it voted to add another meeting on Aug. 11.
In the meantime, Ford said she wants the district to develop a forum where parents, educators and other patrons can address the board about their preferences and concerns.