A recent Utah Board of Education decision making health, gym, art and music classes optional for middle school students will be reviewed at a public hearing next week.

The board approved the policy change in August on a split 9-6 vote. It rescinds requirements that seventh- and eighth-grade students complete courses on health, physical education, the arts, digital literacy and college and career readiness, but requires schools to make those courses available as electives.

School board spokeswoman Emilie Wheeler said Friday priority will be given to representatives of four groups that requested the hearing — the Utah Education Association, Uintah School District, Utah Democratic Party and Utah Cultural Alliance — with additional time available to individuals interested in providing feedback.

The hearing will be held Sep. 20 at the Utah Board of Education offices in Salt Lake City. It is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. and does not have a designated end time.

“This is good opportunity for students, parents and educators to provide input on how this change may impact education in Utah middle schools,” Wheeler said. “We invite any member of the public to give feedback and recommendations either at the hearing or through written comment through the end of the month.”

Supporters of the new policy argued that it provides greater curriculum control to school districts, which can impose their own course requirements, while opponents questioned whether it would limit students’ access to valuable information.

The vote approving the change also came shortly before a presentation on youth suicide by Rep. Steven Eliason, who urged the school board to enhance and expand health education for Utah’s students.

“I plead with you to put those things into our curriculum because our children are dying,” the Sandy Republican said at the time. “Apparently what we’re doing is not sufficient to save our children’s lives.”

Utah Education Association president Heidi Mathews said the teacher’s union would like to see the policy change delayed to allow for additional review and discussion.

“Without these minimum standards set,” Mathews said, “there’s a risk that students won’t have those opportunities to participate in the arts and the music and all of those things that contribute to a well-rounded education.”

Mathews said school districts with limited resource may be inclined to scale back course offerings as a cost-saving measure. Statewide requirements are necessary, she said, to ensure that all students in Utah are being offered the same learning opportunities.

“I think its a fundamental duty of the state Board of Education to set minimum standards,” she said. “In enacting this rule, it’s essentially a lowering of those standards.”

In addition to the shift to elective courses, the new policy also removes the credit requirements for core subjects like science, mathematics and English language arts.
Instead of imposing minimum credits, the policy instructs school districts to regularly conduct assessments “to ensure continual student progress” and provide remediation to children who fall short of subject mastery.

Several Utah school districts are currently involved in a competency-based education pilot program, which emphasizes content mastery over credit completion as the primary tool to gauge student advancement.

But Matthews said the state school board is “putting the cart before the horse” by approving competency-based policies while the pilot program is ongoing.

“We don‘t quite know what this means,” she said. “What it sets up is a mastery learning concept without that ever having been fleshed out.”