Salt Lake City schools won’t start until after Labor Day — and they could be entirely online

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parents and students within the Salt Lake City School District rally for K-12 students to return in-person to school this fall, July 15, 2020.

During a chaotic Salt Lake City school board meeting Tuesday night — filled with bickering and backlash and one member accusing teachers who want to continue with online instruction of being “lazy” — members were able to agree on only one thing: delaying the start of the year so that the first day of classes would be pushed to Sept. 8.

Any other decisions, like whether those classes will be in person or not, were put off until next month.

“I think this has been a difficult process to go through,” said the board’s president, Melissa Ford, in the online discussion. “We’ve never been in a situation like this before with a pandemic.”

The board had convened for a special meeting with the intention of voting on a plan for how to return to school and how to keep students safe from the coronavirus. After two hours of debate, though, it ended with mostly hurt feelings and few answers. One board member insisted that the meeting adjourn at exactly 6 p.m. because she had other plans. Another played solitaire on his computer screen while several members shouted over each other.

Meanwhile, parents wrote in the comment section: “PLEASE MAKE A DECISION” and “WE NEED TO KNOW WHAT WE’RE DOING.”

Salt Lake City School District has become a focal point for the state when it comes to reopening. The district is the only one that remains in an area — Utah’s capital city — still deemed “orange,” or at moderate risk for the coronavirus spreading. Under that status, classes were supposed to be held remotely.

But more than 100 residents protested last week, pleading to return to in-person instruction for the fall along with every other K-12 school in the state. And Utah Gov. Gary Herbert responded by making an exception that would allow the district to welcome students back, if it chose.

The decision on whether to do so now lies with the school board to make sometime before classes begin following Labor Day.

A few of the members initially supported a plan Tuesday night from the district’s interim superintendent, Larry Madden, that included the idea for the delayed start. He proposed that Salt Lake City schools stick with the original “orange” requirements and continue with online learning for at least the first quarter, through Oct. 30. The situation would then be assessed again for the second quarter.

“We continue to see an upward trend in cases here,” he said, pointing to hot spots in Glendale and Rose Park. “So we’re going to make every effort we can to mitigate the virus. We may not know for a long time whether it’s the right choice.”

Under that plan, students would still be allowed to continue with sports — which was a large reason for the protest last week. All schoolwork, though, would be done remotely with a few exceptions for those who need extra services to meet one on one with teachers on occasion.

Madden promised that the online instruction “would not be a repeat of spring” when schools were abruptly shut down, teachers scrambled to get their coursework online, and some students were lost in the shuffle.

Now, all educators have been trained on the best methods for teaching remotely. And all of the materials are centralized on one districtwide website so families don’t have to figure out multiple platforms. “We are ready to do it and we are ready to do it well,” Madden added.

Additionally, the school district has purchased 2,000 more laptops for those who don’t have access to computers at home.

Board member Samuel Hanson called the online proposal “very sensible,” saying it was “guided by science and compassion.” Member Nate Salazar suggested, “Education is paramount, but we also have a duty to the safety of our community.”

There was no opportunity for anyone to give a public comment during the meeting, but several teachers in the comment section on the Facebook livestream also noted that they felt that was the safest decision, especially for faculty members who are older and may have underlying conditions. “Teachers are important, too,” one wrote. Another added, “The safety of the teachers and staff should be taken into consideration as well as the students.”

That’s where the meeting got heated, though.

Board member Michael Nemelka said he’s received more than 400 emails from parents who want their kids to return. Online learning, he challenged, doesn’t work. And he suggested teachers just want that because it’s “easier.”

“Online teaching is just a lazy way of attempting to teach children,” he said.

In a previous meeting, Nemelka has suggested that teachers who are afraid of returning to the classroom should just quit. On Tuesday, he sat wrapped in a blanket while playing card games on his computer, which was visible on the live video.

Several board members rolled their eyes while he talked, but some suggested a compromise hybrid model of online and in-person classes. That was originally suggested for if the city was moved to the lower risk level of “yellow” or “green” like the rest of the state. That way, those who wanted to stay home could do so, while those who wanted to return to the classroom would also be able to.

“Parents want to have options,” said member Kristi Swett.

That’s particularly important, she added, for parents who work and can’t leave their kids home alone to do school; that disproportionately impacts families of color who are already seeing the hardest impact with cases in Salt Lake City. Several have also threatened to transfer to another district or charter that will be holding in-person classes if Salt Lake City schools don’t open back up — especially those with kids who learn better with face-to-face teaching.

For mother Raina Williams, that’s the case. She has five kids and two computers. And spring classes online didn’t go well. She led the rally last week to return to the classroom.

“I think it is ridiculous,” she said Tuesday night. “They are not addressing the issues they are creating with keeping kids at home. They have not once addressed the lack of access to internet, equipment, supervision, etc.”

Williams wrote to several board members last week and one responded that she could move her children to Granite School District if she didn’t like how things were being done here.

That member, Katherine Kennedy, also pushed to end the meeting early Tuesday before members had finished discussing the issue — or voted on how to move forward. She said she had plans with her daughter and was promised that the meeting would end by 6 p.m.

“That’s the only reason I agreed to this,” she said over Ford, the board president.

Ford tried to move forward with the discussion to hear from district officials, but Kennedy continued to mention the time and at one point called for an end to the debate while Ford was in the middle of a sentence. Ford had been suggesting that the board look into the issue further and convene a forum for parents and teachers, as well as set up metrics for what the district would consider safe for reopening.

But Kennedy was impatient. “I have plans. I’ve got to go.” She added, “My daughter is waiting.”

Ford was shocked and, for a second, couldn’t think of how to respond. Several in the comments questioned Kennedy’s priorities, saying teachers and parents also have plans to start school and have been waiting all summer to find out what they’re supposed to do.

The board, not coming to a consensus, voted 4-3 only to delay the start of school to Sept. 8. Classes in the district were previously set to start two weeks earlier, on Aug. 25. It will also be up to the board at a later date to decide when that time is made up in the school year.

The hope, for now, is if classes are online, students will have time to pick up computers and get connected with their teachers, said district spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin. And the district will move forward as if the superintendent’s all-online proposal is the plan.

But if classes move forward in person, that time before school starts could also be used to assess which students are behind and how to help them catch up. It lines up, too, with a moonshot effort for people in Utah to wear masks. If cases are reduced by that, the board may decide to welcome students back.

The board meets next on Aug. 4.