Roughly one out of every seven students in Salt Lake City hasn’t logged on for the first week of classes, which started online-only Monday because of the coronavirus pandemic.
And one big reason is that many still don’t have the technology needed to do so.
“I really am alarmed at how many kids don’t have access,” said Melissa Ford, the president of Salt Lake City School District’s board of education. “We can’t just leave them behind.”
The district is the only one in the state to have started school this fall entirely remotely as cases of COVID-19 have continued to hammer the capital city. But despite trying to get school devices to every household before the first day, backlogs in the shipments for laptops and hotspots have left many unable to connect.
Sam Quantz, chief information officer for the district’s IT department, told the school board during its meeting this week that he had 700 unfulfilled requests for computers as of Tuesday.
Those are largely in the district’s three high schools — after it prioritized getting devices to elementary and junior high kids first — and on the west side of the city. West High, for instance, has the most outstanding need, with 320 kids still needing access to technology.
East High has 200 pending requests and Highland High, Quantz said, is now mostly covered. The district doesn’t have enough computers for each student to have their own, so some families are sharing between siblings.
Still, about 3,000 students — or 14% of the district’s population — had yet to log in by the end of the day Tuesday, the second day of school.
The district had ordered about 6,000 additional laptops, but those were delayed when a vendor ran out of materials, Quantz said. He’s contracted with another provider to get 1,500 computers in the next few weeks. But that means it could be a month before some kids are able to check in.
The shortage impacts low-income and minority families the most, he acknowledged, many of whom cannot afford to purchase their own devices.
“The virus is scary, but I’m more afraid that kids aren’t going to graduate from high school,” Ford added during the meeting. “I don’t think we’re serving our children as well as we should be and could be.”
The district also has seen a major drop in enrollment, with about 1,000 fewer kids overall this fall, as families have transferred children to other districts or opted to homeschool.
Last year, Salt Lake City had 22,018 students. According to a preliminary headcount this month, it has 20,994.
If it holds, that’s the steepest decline ever for the district, though a final count won’t be available until Oct. 1.
The enrollment numbers are used to determine how much funding a district gets and how many teachers it can employ. So a major dip could have widespread consequences. Quantz noted that, with its decrease, the district will be considered “overstaffed,” though he didn’t say by how many faculty members. Spokesperson Yándary Chatwin said layoffs are not being considered right now.
Salt Lake City, which has seen its population age recently, typically sees about a 400 to 600 decline in students every year. Districts in the surrounding suburbs in Salt Lake County, such as Canyons, see bumps due to younger families moving out of the capital. But even the larger district here, Granite, has seen a dip of a few hundred students, said spokesperson Ben Horsley.
The state intends to release numbers for all Utah schools by early next week at the latest. State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson added during a legislative meeting Tuesday that she’s worried many students, so far, are “unaccounted for.” She declined to provide a number, but said not as many have registered across the state as normal.
“Students that were enrolled last year are not enrolled this year,” she stressed.
Most of the students leaving Salt Lake City are in the elementary schools, Quantz noted, which seems to point to a problem with the pandemic. He suggests that parents may not like the district’s plan to be fully virtual for the fall and may have decided to go elsewhere where in-person classes are offered.
And the shift adds to the existing inequities. Many of those leaving are on the east side, with families able to afford, for instance, the transportation to take their kid elsewhere. Beacon Heights Elementary on 2500 East, for instance, has 100 fewer kids this year. Highland Park Elementary on 1700 East is down by abut 80. Dilworth Elementary on 2100 East accounts for another 70 students gone. About 300 kindergartners have also left across the district (completing kindergarten, though, isn’t a requirement in Utah).
“That’s the alarm bell,” said school board member Kristi Swett. “It’s significant. One thousand students is significant.”
Both Swett and Ford said the district should now be pushing to open schools as soon as possible so more kids don’t transfer, as well as to deal with the ongoing issues with technology access.
“It’s hard knowing that hundreds of kids don’t have devices or connectivity, and we still went online-only,” Swett added.
Overall, the numbers seem to match how many kids logged on when Salt Lake City schools first shut down this spring. Then, about 15% of students at West High, for instance, never checked in for virtual learning.
“That’s not enough,” Ford said. “We need to have more attending.” She has suggested possibly having elementary students return in-person. That would help the younger students, who have a hard time learning online, and free up more computers for the high schoolers.
Interim Superintendent Larry Madden said he plans to meet with the county health department next week to determine if the metrics the district set for reopening are feasible. It has been waiting to return face-to-face for the positivity rate in the greater county to be below 5% and the cases per 100,000 to be below 10. “We’ve gotten close to meeting that, but things have taken a turn,” Madden noted.
He added that he doesn’t think those bars will be reached by the end of October, when the first term wraps up. That means, for now, the district’s focus will still be getting all students connected online.