Parents on Salt Lake City’s west side — where the virus has hit the worst in Utah — don’t want to send their kids back to school

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Playground equipment at Backman Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.

On the west side of Salt Lake City — where the prevalence of the coronavirus has been the worst in the state — parents are feeling scared and frustrated and ignored.

As education officials for the capital district have discussed what to do with classes this fall, some have pointed to these largely minority and working families as a key reason that schools need to reopen.

But contrary to what most believe or assume, some of these parents say, they don’t want schools to open back up. Many have signed a new petition urging the Salt Lake City School District to continue instead with online learning to specifically keep the hard-hit west side safe. The effort has more than 1,500 signatures, mostly from other parents in the most impacted zip codes in Utah.

Karla Jimenez and her husband, Fabian, both work jobs that can’t be done at home, and she’s already worried about carrying the virus to her three kids because of that. So she doesn’t like the idea of her children being exposed even more in school.

Circe Arzola said she, too, would rather her 14-year-old son lose a year of schooling than send him back and have him or his teachers lose their lives. At least education, she added, can be made up.

And Suyin Chong noted that her neighborhood of Rose Park is already devastated by people coming down with the virus. Reopening schools, she fears, would only make it worse. She doesn’t want her four kids to catch COVID-19 in a classroom and then spread it to others in their community, where many live in multi-generational households.

“We don’t want to risk our families,” said Chong, who has joined Jimenez and Arzola in signing the petition. “We need more people in the school district to really understand our needs and our situation. Right now, they’re not speaking for us.”

The district’s board of education is set to vote Thursday night on how to reopen. Last week, the board heard a plan to start the school year remotely but after two hours of bickering and backlash, members couldn’t come to an agreement. One member insisted that those on the west side need classrooms so their kids have somewhere to go when they go to work. But no one from the community, Arzola pointed out, was allowed to speak during the public comment period.

And most of the push to return in person, she believes, has actually come from east side parents, who organized a rally calling for schools in the capital city to welcome students back — especially as every other district in the state was planning for reopening under an order from the governor. Gov. Gary Herbert responded by rewriting the statewide coronavirus guidelines to allow the district to open again, though Salt Lake City is the only area that remains in the “orange,” or moderate, risk level and, as such, had been required to do distance learning.

The petition from the west side group challenges that, suggesting: “We know that the east side residents have the ear of the board but please know that while they are busy making demands to reopen, we are busy keeping the grocery stores open so that they can get food, keeping pharmacies open so they can get medicine, and keeping the hospitals and clinics open so that when they get sick from this awful virus, we can help them get better.”

It says they are the most impacted but the least listened to, “the often-ignored backbone of this city” now being used an excuse to reopen. “The east side parents should not get to decide what is best for our children,” it adds. “We are already sacrificing enough.”

Jimenez clocks in at a restaurant in her neighborhood while her husband works in construction. They can’t afford not to show up or they wouldn’t make rent, she said. The parents both take their shoes off at their front door. They immediately throw their uniforms in the washing machine. They wipe down their arms and faces with washcloths — even though they wear gloves and masks. And only then do they let themselves hug and kiss their kids.

They live in Glendale, a major hot spot, and can tell when their neighbors have contracted the disease. They stop seeing them leave for work in the morning. And they watch people deliver care packages on their doorsteps. It’s moved quickly throughout their tight knit community, Jimenez said, and she’s scared.

She doesn’t want to send her kids into a classroom when she knows so many around them have the virus. “It doesn’t make any sense for us to put out kids in danger,” she said.

Another mother wrote on the petition that it would be like “trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it.” One added that it felt like “an experiment to see how bad gets.”

(Photo courtesy of Karla Jimenez) Pictured is the Jimenez family.

Zip codes on the east side, according to data from Salt Lake City, have not been hit as hard.

Even though she wouldn’t be able to stay home with her three kids — one in high school, one in middle school and one in elementary school — while they did their learning online, Jimenez said she would feel better knowing they’d be safe. And her oldest, she added, can watch the others.

No single solution will work for every family, said Yándary Chatwin, the spokeswoman for the district. “We are trying to balance the need to provide students with a good education and their safety and wellbeing,” she said. “We hope parents feel heard.”

(Photo courtesy of Suyin Chong) Pictured is the Chong family.

Chong, who lives in Rose Park with her husband and four kids, believes that people are surprised when they hear that many west side parents don’t want classes to return in person.

“The schools should be contacting us, but they’re not. We’re getting left out,” she said. With many minority families living on the west side, she added, “They’re deciding what we want because there’s a language barrier.” (Chatwin noted that all district emails to parents go out in multiple languages.)

Chong said the Vietnamese and Chinese parents she’s talked to who work and don’t have anyone to watch their kids during the day — one of the biggest challenges to keeping schools shut — would prefer a subsidized day care option, or help arranging babysitting networks, to having their children in a classroom with 30 or 40 others.

About 20% of students statewide didn’t log on in the spring when classes went online. In Salt Lake City, many of those were on the west side in refugee families or those without internet access.

Teacher Rebecca Richardson worries about continuing with only remote learning for those kids — which can be harder for those who aren’t fluent in English. She’s pitching the idea of possibly opening small tents in neighborhoods where up to five students could come at a time to get one-on-one help from a teacher.

She added that older kids would be encouraged to bring their younger siblings if they need to be watching them.

That would support teens who are helping families with child care while also providing educational support to those who need it most, said Richardson, who teaches English to kids learning it as a second language.

Jimenez said that’s a good way to help families like hers who can’t afford child care. Overall, these are the kind of options, she said, that west side families really want.

Arzola, who lives in Fairpark and whose 14-year-old son is in middle school, wants the district to ensure that all students have access to laptops and WiFi so they can work online. And they need teachers and principals to put their attention on helping students learn that way, she said.

She believes as long as there’s more support, remote learning will work until it’s safer to be in person. And, even if it doesn’t, it’s not worth it to her to risk lives. Her son struggled with math online this spring, but it was still better to her than having him in the classroom.

“I just don’t see a better alternative,” she said

While her son studies at home, her husband works as a service technician and she works at Intermountain Medical Center. There, Arzola has been putting together IV bags for COVID patients. She’s seen the last names on the bags and has noticed they are disproportionately Latino and Pacific Islander, like the names of many of those who live on the west side. They looked like her name and her family’s names.

With that in mind, she signed the petition to keep schools closed and wrote: “I prefer my kids alive.”