Salt Lake City schools will start only online this fall, with plans to return in person ‘as soon as it’s safe’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Larry Madden, Interim Superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District, details the district's restart plans for the 2020-21 school year at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 30, 2020. At rear is Melissa Ford, president of the Salt Lake City School District Board of Education, and Nate Salazar, board vice president.

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Salt Lake City schools will start the year with all classes online — making it the only district in the state to not have any students returning in person.

The move, approved by the district’s board of education Thursday, is a reaction to the high number of coronavirus infections that continue to trouble Utah’s capital. After more than two hours of discussion, members decided it was less risky to keep kids at home at least for the first month back this fall.

“Getting our children back in classrooms is important,” said the board’s president, Melissa Ford, in the virtual meeting. “And we intend to do that as soon as it’s safe.”

The decision came in a much tamer meeting than the chaos that colored the board’s debate on the topic last week, which ended then with an impasse. One member, though, Michael Nemelka, still voted against the plan Thursday in the 6-1 roll call. And, with his camera turned off this time, he said he will continue to believe that teachers who want to continue with remote instruction are “lazy.”

Ford and others pushed back against that remark.

Schools in the city will now start online on Sept. 8 — under a two-week delay to give teachers, parents and students time to prepare. The district intends to monitor cases of the virus for when a return to the classroom could safely happen. Any reopening will be aligned with either the midway mark or end of a quarter to not disrupt classes and grading. The first quarter ends Oct. 30.

In order to return, interim Superintendent Larry Madden said the district is looking at two benchmarks. The average positivity rate in the greater county, he said, will need to be at 5% of those tested. Currently, it’s at 9.32%. The district is also watching the cases per 100,000 people. To reopen, it will need to be below 10. Right now, it’s at 17.9.

“We want to start the year off cautiously,” Madden said during a news conference after the meeting. “Our goal is to maintain a balance between the health and safety of our students and their education.”

The board’s 13-page plan spells out, too, what a hybrid or in-person return would look like for when it is possible to go back.

Even with classes online, though, sports in the district will be allowed to resume. And those who need extra help can schedule one-on-one meetings with their teachers or a counselor, Madden said.

He pledged, too, that the online class experience would be much more robust than what was offered in the spring when schools quickly transitioned online in response to the pandemic 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. Additionally, the school district has purchased 6,000 more laptops for those who don’t have access to computers at home, and it’s working to make sure all students have internet connections — one of the major equity issues in remaining online.

Nearly 1,500 parents and teachers watched the discussion Thursday. When the decision was announced to continue virtually, the comment section erupted with “What a relief!” and “THANK YOU!” and “Well done!”

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

But more than 100 residents rallied earlier this month, 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.

(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.

Parents on the west side have since pushed back. They argue that their zip codes in Glendale and Rose Park are the worst impacted by the virus, and they don’t want to put their kids in danger by sending them to school. Those concerns were exacerbated when earlier Thursday, Herbert announced that students who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus don’t have to quarantine and can come to class.

Madden said he’s appreciated the feedback from both sides and it has helped the district make what he described as “the hardest possible decision.”

Most of the board supported the plan. Member Nate Salazar said that he loves that it’s “rooted in science.” Member Katherine Kennedy added that most of the constituents she’s heard from are in favor.

Others asked questions about how the district would specifically help the most vulnerable students and joined in voting for the plan when they heard the response. Sandra Buendia, the district’s executive director of educational equity and student support, assured that kids who are learning English, have disabilities, are refugees, or just in need of a safe space will be a focus. The district will send out staff to every household it needs to, especially those that have been harder to reach, to make sure students have what they need for classes to begin.

All students and parents will have the option of meeting with their teachers in the two weeks before school starts. And they can use that time to advocate for their needs. The district will additionally do assessments of every child to see who might be falling behind after the spring and could use more attention, Buendia said.

The breakfast and lunch programs will continue, as well, for families.

At one point during the discussion, Member Michelle Tuitupou asked: “How will you work with working parents?” And Nemelka, the board member who called teachers “lazy,” laughed.

Last week, during the board’s debate, he had played solitaire on a second computer screen, which could be seen on the livestream, and many residents were upset. This week, when it was his turn to speak, he declared that he wouldn’t turn his camera on because of it. “That’s why you don’t have my picture now,” he said.

Nemelka, a retired teacher, continued by saying he didn’t understand why educators weren’t willing to return to the classroom. He compared them to firemen and doctors and grocery store workers who have worked during the pandemic “despite the danger.”

“They have courage and we applaud them for it. So why do some teachers not want to take their place in front of the classroom?” he asked. “To those teachers who are afraid of the life you live, you need to take a look at yourself.”

He said in-person instruction is the most important part of the job. “I still believe that online teaching is a lazy way of teaching K-12,” he added.

As he talked, some in the comments called for him to step down. Nemelka’s seat is up for election this year, with one person, Jenny Sika, running against him.

Ford had started the meeting Thursday by saying that how the board’s discussion went last week was not appropriate, largely pointing to the concerns with Nemelka, as well as Kennedy pushing to end the debate at exactly 6 p.m. because she had other plans. Students, Ford said, need to be the board’s priority.

“Last week, other priorities and personal concerns took away from that focus,” she said. “These type of distractions have no place in a board meeting.”

Right now, she said, the top concern is keeping students safe. While many prefer in-person teaching and see that as the more effective way for kids to learn, Ford added, it’s too dangerous under the current conditions in the city.

But the district is still preparing for when it might be safer to open by adjusting the air systems in schools, installing sanitation stations on playgrounds and putting up plexiglass barriers. Because returning, Ford said, is the goal.

The school plan states: “It is not in our students’ or families’ best interests to proceed indefinitely with a remote only option, nor is that our intent.”

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