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SALT LAKE CITY — Republican Sen. Todd Weiler says he is "thrilled" the Salt Lake City Board of Education voted to resume in-person learning in its middle and high schools starting Feb. 8, but he is nonetheless proceeding with SB107.
The bill would require the State School Board to reallocate a portion of a per-pupil funding from a school district that does not provide a broad-based in-person learning option for all students in kindergarten through grade 12 by Feb. 8. It would also allow the funding to flow to accredited private schools should a student choose that option, although Weiler acknowledged the funding likely "would not even come close to paying most private school tuitions."
It is more a measure to hold the school district to the commitment it made to reopen secondary schools starting next month, he said.
Late Tuesday night, the Salt Lake School Board voted to offer the option of in-person learning two days a week in its middle and high schools starting Feb. 8. Wednesdays will remain a digital learning day and high school students can choose which classes to attend in person and which classes to attend remotely.
"I'm hoping that the bill doesn't need to advance to the House, and the plan right now is as long as they move forward, we'll circle it on the Senate floor. It'll just remain there ... I do think we will keep that bill locked and loaded so if for some reason, the policy changes between now and the end of the session we can still pull that trigger if we have to," said Weiler, who represents the Woods Cross region.
The Senate Education Committee voted 5-2 Wednesday to forward the bill to the full Senate. Sens. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, and Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, voted in opposition.
The local school board's decision comes after a parent lawsuit seeking to force the reopening of schools to in-person learning and legislative leaders calling on the school district to open its doors to students or risk loss of a pandemic bonus to be offered to teachers statewide.
Some board members said in Tuesday night's meeting that neither was a factor in their decision to resume in-person learning and that their decision was based on what was best for their school communities.
Weiler said the legislation should be no surprise to the Salt Lake City School District, which is the lone Utah district to offer only remote learning to the vast majority of its students. Children who receive special education services or are English language learners have been brought into schools for small group instruction.
Public comment on the bill was divided among people who said its intent was to bully the Salt Lake District and parents who said lawmakers were their "last resort" after their pleas to return to in-person learning weren't heard.
Salt Lake parent Mary Catherine Perry told committee members: "You are our last safeguard to make sure that our students' needs are met and prioritized. Please report this bill out favorably and make sure our board follows through on their plan."
Salt Lake School Board President Melissa Ford spoke in opposition, noting it "overlooks Utah's long-standing value of support for local control in local decision-making."
Kitchen said he believes in-person learning is better for students but he saw no point in running the legislation after Tuesday night's school board vote.
"It feels like a slippery slope to vouchers and that's a huge concern all on its own," Kitchen said.
But Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he did not consider SB107 as punitive, calling it "a very compassionate effort to try to help people with their children."
You are our last safeguard to make sure that our students' needs are met and prioritized. Please report this bill out favorably and make sure our board follows through on their plan.
–Mary Catherine Perry, Salt Lake parent
Salt Lake District's elementary students will return to the classroom on a staggered basis starting Jan. 25 with plans that all elementary students are back in schools by Feb. 8.
Weiler addressed the Salt Lake School Board in November urging the district to follow the guidance of national COVID-19 experts and get students back into classrooms.
Weiler, whose Senate district includes about half of Salt Lake City's Rose Park neighborhood, said he has also had conversations with Interim Superintendent Larry Madden encouraging a return to in-person learning.
"When I see 40 districts doing this in different ways, and one district for four or five months saying, 'We're not going to do it,' then I have to default to representing the parents as a primary concern because they know their kids best," he said.
Half of the schools in San Juan School District are also operating virtually. But unlike in Salt Lake City, families in San Juan District were surveyed regarding their preferences of in-person school or remote learning and the district provided that option, said Ron Nielson, superintendent of the district in southeastern Utah.
Parents in Monticello and Blanding overwhelmingly opted for in-person learning while the vast majority of parents of children who live and attend schools on the Navajo Nation wanted virtual learning.
"We were responsive to both regions, going with what they wanted to see. So that meant that in our Navajo Nation schools we did go virtual and in Blanding and Monticello schools we did go in person," he said.
The parents' choice for remote learning on the Navajo Nation was driven by the risks of further spread of COVID-19, he said.
"The Navajo tribe has also come in and issued a desire for the schools on the Navajo Nation to be virtual and the parents support that. The COVID has just been so extreme that they have seen and witnessed that they are completely committed to be virtual. They would not come to the schools," he said.
Nielson said he does not believe SB107 will apply to the San Juan School District because it was responsive to community wishes and offered families choices where the Salt Lake City School District only provided a remote learning option.
Weiler made note of this in his presentation to the Senate Education Committee, describing San Juan District's as a "very different situation," adding, "I don't see this bill applying to them."