As the only district in the state with classes that will start entirely online, Salt Lake City schools face a major task: making sure all 22,000 students can actually log on.
That was a challenge this spring when schools shut down because of the coronavirus and had to shift quickly to remote instruction. About 15% of students at West High, for instance, never checked in for virtual learning.
“We know that there are gaps in our school district with families not having access to internet or even devices,” said district spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin.
In order to solve that for the fall, the district is making a concerted effort to go to houses and apartment complexes in place of the typical back-to-school nights that they’d host. They’re specifically looking for families that haven’t registered yet — maybe because they’re newly resettled refugees or because the parents don’t speak English or because everyone in the household has been busy working. Sometimes it’s just that the internet reception they have is too spotty to get on the school’s website.
Whatever the reason, staff are using the home visits to get students signed up for classes and to check out laptops and hotspots for those who need them. The hope is that by the time classes start on Sept. 8, everyone will be able to connect.
One of those outreach efforts took place at the Park Place Apartments, near 700 South and 300 East, on Tuesday. Chatwin said the district was able to get about 60 kids registered for Clayton Middle School in about two hours. The previous week they focused on the same place while getting the younger students ready for Liberty Elementary.
“There’s a lot of underserved communities in that area,” she said. “There’s a high refugee population, too.”
Salt Lake City School District is one of the most diverse in the state.
Stephanie Hunt, an English language development teacher at Clayton Middle School, stood outside the apartments and guided students through the process of registering. Nine other staffers were there to help, including some translators. Everyone wore masks.
One station handed out laptops. Lah Hser and her son, Saw Sunday, went there first. Friends Deborah Tamari, Chanceline Kooutou and Abshiro Yassin giggled together as they went to the table to pick up their class schedules. They wanted to see which courses they’d have at the same time — even if they’d just be on a Zoom call.
Salt Lake City School District’s board of education delayed the start of classes until after Labor Day to give teachers and administrators more time to prepare.
Members also elected last month to have school start online until cases of the virus decline in the capital city, which has seen the highest counts since the pandemic began. It’s the only district in the state to not offer an in-person option. Instead, the district will watch case numbers to determine when it’s safe to return. Until then, most work will be done remotely with exceptions for a few students with disabilities or in need of extra help.
The district has purchased an extra 6,000 laptops for the fall, in addition to the 7,000 handed out in the spring, to accommodate the virtual instruction. Families can get those at registration events or by calling their principals. They can also check one out from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. weeknights at a community learning center in their neighborhood, if they don’t have transportation.
That may be a good option, Chatwin said, for families with kids are multiple schools, too, so they don’t have to find a ride to each one. The district is trying to think through any possible complications ahead of time.
“We knew this would be a challenge,” she added. “But it’s so crucial for a year where things are so different for school. At the end of the day, our goal is to get devices to every student.”