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SALT LAKE CITY — The only school district in Utah that hasn't had in-person classroom learning this school year voted late Tuesday to wait until its teachers are vaccinated before deciding when to open up its middle schools and high schools.
Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson called the Salt Lake City Board of Education's decision disappointing.
Wilson said other school districts have implemented precautions that allow students to benefit from in-person instruction while protecting teachers and staff.
"Students in Salt Lake should not be left behind," said Wilson, R-Kaysville, in a statement.
He noted that "the overwhelming majority of Salt Lake City School District parents have expressed their appreciation that the Legislature took such a strong stance in support of in-person instruction. I am disappointed by the position taken by the Salt Lake City School District Board, who seem ready to accept their students falling significantly behind their counterparts in surrounding districts."
He added, "I hope the board members who are charged with caring for their students will choose to start in-classroom instruction by Feb. 8 so Salt Lake City teachers can receive their stipend and their students can get back to school."
Wilson referred to a decision by the Utah Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee last month to extend a $1,500 bonus to each public school teacher in appreciation for their hard work during the pandemic. To be eligible, teachers must be offering in-person learning or some combination of in-person and virtual learning.
Salt Lake City schools have solely offered remote learning since the start of the school year — the only school district in Utah to select that option. However, some students have received in-person services such as English language instruction and special education.
According to at least two Salt Lake school board members, teachers "don't want to trade their safety" for the bonus.
Board member Katherine Kennedy said a letter from the Salt Lake Education Association "said obliquely, but still clearly, that the teachers did not want to trade their safety for $1,500. But that was the general feeling is that they did not want to do that. In fact, I've heard from a lot of teachers, but I did not hear from one teacher who said that they like to go back and get the money."
Board member Joel-Lehi Organista, in his inaugural meeting as a board member, concurred: "I do want to validate that a lot of people are scared. That's real."
Organista said he had received multiple emails from West High School teachers "that were like, 'No. I don't care about getting a check, I don't care.' I'm like, they don't want to teach in person. They want to get the vaccine."
The school district has been under mounting pressure to reopen schools, with Gov. Spencer Cox, legislative leaders and a group of Salt Lake parents who filed a civil rights lawsuit calling for a change in course. The parents' lawsuit demands the option of in-person learning for their children.
Recent reports that some 4,000 middle schoolers and high schoolers received at least one F grade or incomplete grade during the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year have stirred concerns locally and at the state level.
Following the Executive Appropriations Committee's actions last month, legislative leaders and Salt Lake City officials met in what the school district described as "productive conversations."
At the time, Interim Superintendent Larry Madden said he agreed to present a return-to-school plan at middle schools and high schools at the Jan. 5 meeting.
The plan Madden presented to the board Tuesday included an in-person learning option in secondary schools dependent on the teacher vaccination timeline and would have required all teachers to return to work in school buildings on Jan. 25.
Madden said the district was initially told vaccines would be available this week but that timeline has been pushed back because the vaccine rollout has been slower than anticipated statewide.
The board agreed to time the start of the in-person option according to the vaccination schedule, but declined to require teachers to return to work at schools on Jan. 25.
The board also directed the administration to work with schools about their preferences on small-group instruction. Remote learning will remain the default option for students.
In addition, the board directed district administrators to present a report on mental health services for students and a district-level public awareness campaign about mitigation steps and community help in containing spread of COVID-19.
Madden said as an interim superintendent, "l don't need to propose something that's going to try to appease the Legislature to keep my job. I'm going to go with what I'm comfortable with."
That said, the meetings with lawmakers helped move forward the vaccination of the district's teachers, he said.
Every day I see people, hundreds and hundreds of people come through to get tested for COVID and it's not getting better. It's getting worse.
–Jessica Johnson, parent
Public comments to the board suggest the community remains divided between parents who say their children's mental health and academic achievement have suffered while the district has conducted school only online and they want the option of returning to classrooms, and others who say health risks of COVID-19 will not be relieved with teacher immunization.
Jessica Johnson, a parent of a high-school age student and an EMT who has been performing COVID-19 tests and works part-time on ambulance crews, said she, like every other person on the planet, wishes things were back to normal "but we are far from it."
"Every day I see people, hundreds and hundreds of people come through to get tested for COVID and it's not getting better. It's getting worse," she said.
Johnson said she fears vaccination of teachers and staff "isn't going to be enough."
"People are sicker and the community spread is worse. And it's spreading like wildfire. To put it in perspective, our daily case average would be the same as if California had 75,000 cases a day," she said.
Emily Snow, a parent of a fifth grader and art educator, said the school district is "currently facing a crisis of great proportion in our schools" between academic loss and social-emotional distress.
"It's clear that online schooling is not meeting the needs of a large majority of our students. Online may work for a few, but others need another option, an in-person option. Socially and emotionally we have a crisis with students suffering with depression and anxiety as they spend six to eight hours each day alone in their bedroom staring at screens.
"Educators are taught to be data driven, and research based. If that's the guiding premise, then what are we waiting for?" she said.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly identified Emily Snow as Chris Snow.