SALT LAKE CITY — After a day of arguments from legislative leaders in the state house and attorneys representing parents in a courthouse that Salt Lake City students should return to classrooms for in-person learning, the school district voted late Tuesday to do just that.
A daylong hearing in 3rd District Court centered on a motion seeking to have a judge force the district to resume in-person learning, the aim of a civil rights lawsuit brought by a group of parents. Ultimately, the judge took the matter under advisement, telling the parties he will issue a written ruling soon.
At the same time on Capitol Hill, Senate President Stuart Adams, in his opening remarks to the Utah Legislature, referenced "alarming reports that in the Salt Lake City School District, where there is no option for in-person learning, there is a 600% increase in students failing all classes, despite teachers' best efforts."
"We can't let this happen in Utah. Our kids' futures are at risk," said Adams, R-Layton. "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."
Senate members applauded his remarks.
Later in the day, Adams said he was not interested in the school district facing "ramifications," but he is interested in "getting kids back to school and making sure they get good learning. And we'll do whatever we can to try to help parents."
Moving ahead "you'll see some efforts to try to give parents more control, because I've heard from parents, over and over again, 'I just want control of my kids and their education.' There will be some efforts to try to do that during this session," Adams later told reporters.
It remains to be seen whether the court challenge or legislative actions become moot points after the board voted late Tuesday to adopt a proposal by Larry Madden, interim superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District, that will enable middle school and high school students to return to in-person learning for two days a week starting on Feb. 8.
The immunization of teachers makes the switch to the hybrid schedule possible, but it will also require "meticulous" adherence to mitigation practices such as masking and social distancing, he said.
The board approved the plan by a 6-1 vote, with board member Katherine Kennedy voting no.
Board President Melissa Ford spoke in favor of the proposal, which she said is based on data and science.
"I've appreciated that the superintendent has always taken a very cautious approach as has this board to protect our community and but also how to educate children safely," she said.
Kennedy was unconvinced.
"So perhaps we need to discuss what sort of risk is worth sending our children back to school because there will be COVID transmissions when we return, because transmission occurs in schools, and we need to accept this fact," Kennedy said.
"Our 'experiment' is going to end in illness and possibly death," she said.
The lawsuit to force a return to an in-school learning option was brought by "eight sets of parents, most of whom are not part of our minority majority population, all of whom are highly privileged," Kennedy said.
Kennedy said what the board should be discussing in its meetings is how the Utah Legislature "has tried to influence us, not only with teacher bonuses but also with threats about decreasing funding through other methods. We might want to remind some of our legislators that because we have kept our schools remote and thus disrupted COVID transmission ... we have (more) spaces in the hospitals within our boundaries for their constituents who need those beds."
Board member Kristi Swett said, "It's not just about privileged people wanting their children to be back in school, especially when I look at my precinct. I've told all of you this, that it's a very divided precinct so I need to be able, you know, to represent both sides of that."
About 850 of the district's teachers have received COVID-19 vaccines, with another 300 to be offered the vaccine later this week.
Some board members urged Madden to also implement a rigorous COVID-19 testing program to further protect the school community.
Two board members said neither legislative pressure nor the parent lawsuit persuaded their actions. They voted to do what is best for their constituents and the district.
During the court hearing earlier in the day, Ryan Bell, attorney for the parents who are suing the school district, said the motion for a preliminary injunction was sought "as a last resort."
Salt Lake City School District is the only school district in Utah "whose doors remain closed to classes," Bell said.
"For some students, this is working out OK. It's not easy for anyone. In the district's terminology, it is manageable. But for other students this school has been a true disaster," he said.
Moreover, the Utah Constitution guarantees the right to a public education that is free and open, which means "the students are entitled to educational opportunities that are equal to the education being offered to other students in the state," Bell said.
The school district continues to operate on mostly remote mode — aside from small groups of students who receive in-person instruction such as students who receive special education services, are English language learners or are struggling academically.
Kyle Kaiser, attorney for the Salt Lake City School District and its interim superintendent, argued that the school district is open.
"It's open as a matter of fact, and it's open as a matter of constitutional law and is providing its students with an education in the way the board views — safe and sustainable means that they intend to protect the health and safety of their students and their staff. And it intends to manage reopening so that it will avoid backsliding and closing schools after they've been open, as we've seen through closures of various schools across the state," Kaiser said.
As a matter of local control, Kaiser argued that the school district does not have to operate as other school districts.
"The Utah Supreme Court has reinforced that idea because local school districts have the right and even the obligation to decide how classes are held. They don't violate the Utah Constitution if they make a decision that's different from their contemporaries and other districts, with other constituencies with other demographic and geographic makeup," he said.
Under the most recent action of the Salt Lake board, elementary students are scheduled to return to school in phases starting later this month with all elementary grades returning by Feb. 8.
The plaintiffs' attorneys took issue with the school district's metrics for reopening, which were established last summer, specifically that in-person learning would not resume until the proportion of all COVID-19 tests taken in Salt Lake County for a given week that were positive fell to 5% or below and the number of infected persons within the county fell to 10 per 100,000 individuals.
"The district stuck by a set of reopening metrics they knew were unattainable," Bell said.
As of Monday, the positive case percentage in Salt Lake County rate was 16.42%, according to the Salt Lake County Health Department dashboard.
The plaintiffs also argued that it was not easy for parents to exercise other options. Two parents testified that they had explored transferring their children to the Granite School District but they were told its schools were at capacity, there were waiting lists or schools had done away with their waiting lists because there was no reasonable expectation that more students could be accommodated.
But both said under cross-examination that they had only sought information from Granite District.
The defendants produced a document that showed some 6% of Salt Lake students had transferred to neighboring school districts, including Canyons, Granite, Jordan and Murray.
Bell said months of remote learning had exacted educational and emotional tolls on students, referring to declarations from parents filed with the court.
"In the declarations the court will find troubling stories of kids set adrift by their school system. They struggle with technological challenges. They feel isolated. They're unable to connect personally with their teachers and are deprived of contact with their peers," he said.
Students fight to resist distraction, "but some give in spending more time with video games or other entertainment than their schools. ... Emotional problems have grown worse, social opportunities grow scarce, and rates go from As and Bs to Fs. This is all been documented in the declarations provided by plaintiffs," Bell said.
Ella Fiefia, a seventh grader who attends Clayton Middle School and the daughter of plaintiff Salli Fiafia, said she struggles to concentrate on her studies while her younger siblings learn at home as well and have challenges with technology.
After getting mostly A's and B's in elementary school, her grades have dropped to B's, C's and "a couple of F's," she said.
Fiefia said she cares about getting good grades so when she gets poor grades, "it's been stressful. When it's stressful, it makes me kind of sad."
Madden, when questioned by Utah assistant attorney general Diana Bradley, representing the superintendent and the school district, said he spoke with Utah Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson on a couple of occasions since he became interim superintendent on July 1.
"In your conversations with her, she's never directed you to open in person?" Bradley asked.
"No," Madden said.
With respect to students who are struggling academically, Madden said, "There's been a big push at the schools that showed the higher numbers of failure rates."
Glendale Middle School has a team of three people including a social worker that makes home visits. "Lots of administrators and counselors are doing home visits. They're trying to connect with students remotely, but if that's not working then they're taking whatever steps necessary to connect with kids and help kids develop a plan," Madden said.
Kaiser said the plaintiffs have the burden of proof to show irreparable harm to Salt Lake students due to remote learning.
Other than a couple of anecdotes that an increased number of students receiving failing grades are due to remote learning, "the evidence that we provide showed that at least related to reading, our scores were about comparable."
Attorneys for the parents also relied on evidence that fewer students are turning in assignments in comparison to turn-in rates in a neighboring district.
"We don't even know what assignments necessarily are and what the metric for how many assignments there are relative to what the education system," he said.
Contributing: Katie McKellar, Deseret News