Salt Lake City to start allowing elementary students to come back to school in late January

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Miles Jones, a sixth grader at Uintah Elementary School, stretches during the first day of online classes for Salt Lake City School District on Sept. 14, 2020. The district's board of education voted on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, to allow elementary students back at school in person in January.

Salt Lake City plans to reopen its elementary school classrooms at the end of January for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic struck — but its middle and high school students will remain online.

The move to resume in-person teaching for the district’s youngest kids came late Tuesday night after nearly two hours of debate by the district’s school board, with one member shouting profanities at others to “make a decision for hell’s sake” and deep division over whether it was safe to proceed. The measure narrowly passed 4-3.

With the plan, the Salt Lake City school board will abandon the earlier metrics it had set as the bar for returning to face-to-face instruction. That included requiring an average weekly positivity rate in the greater county below 5% of those tested. The new decision instead came when Salt Lake County is at one of its highest rates yet at 24.4% and COVID-19 cases are exploding across Utah with roughly 3,000 infections reported each day.

While some members of the board were hesitant to backtrack during the surge, President Melissa Ford insisted, “It seems like this is a risk worth taking. And I don’t think it’s that big of a risk.”

The district had been the only one in the state to be fully online.

In-person classes for elementary students will now begin with prekindergarten, kindergarten and first grade starting the week of Jan. 25. Second and third graders will be able to come in Feb. 1. And fourth, fifth and sixth grades can start Feb. 8.

The comment section during the virtual meeting quickly filled with parents firing back and forth over the plans to reopen, with some in defense and others vehemently disagreeing. “Open up elementary, it’s working in other districts,” a dad wrote. Another, who’s also a family physician, told the board, “The science would point you to open schools.”

One mom countered, “Stick to the metrics. This is an unsafe situation.” And a few also mentioned pediatric doctors in Utah who recently described how they are seeing more severe cases of the disease in kids, casting doubt over the widespread belief that COVID-19 is almost never serious in children. Some kids, in particular, are developing an inflammatory syndrome after getting the virus, and they average six days in the hospital, with five of them spent in the intensive care unit.

“Wait until the vaccine is widely available,” pleaded another mom. A group of parents from the west side also wrote a letter Tuesday urging the board to delay any return.

But Ford said the plan is about giving parents options if they want their kids to return in person, which she feels is important for younger kids who can’t read yet and may struggle with online learning. Those who don’t want to switch can continue with remote instruction.

She and the other board members who favored the plan largely based their votes on new numbers provided by district Superintendent Larry Madden. While the severity of cases wasn’t discussed, the numbers showed that rates among elementary-age children are much lower than adults.

Madden compared the positive cases of COVID-19 among the elementary students at the four other districts in the county — Canyons, Granite, Jordan and Murray — that have all reopened in person. Each was below 1%, according to the health department data.

The 10,000 elementary kids staying home in Salt Lake City School District caught the virus at about the same rate: 0.7%.

“It appears from preliminary health department data,” Madden said, “that the risk for elementary students in remote learning is not statistically different from other students in the county that are learning in person.”

The same didn’t hold for high schools.

In the other districts, the infection rate ranged from 2.6% to 3.75% for high schoolers. With those learning online in Salt Lake City, it was 1.9%. For now, Madden said, the older students should stay home. They’re better equipped to do online school than young kids and can continue with that until it’s safer.

Any decision to reopen middle or high schools was postponed by the board until Jan. 5.

The superintendent acknowledged that he didn’t have the data for how teachers were impacted. Statewide numbers show 4.74% or 1,280 of the 27,000 teachers in Utah have gotten COVID-19; the data does not include a breakdown of where those occurred in elementary and secondary schools.

“There are things we don’t know,” Madden said. “There are a lot of things we don’t know.”

Some elementary teachers wrote in the comment section that they would quit over the return to in-person instruction. Many said they are frustrated that the district didn’t get their input before making a decision.

Laura Hamilton, who teaches at Ensign Elementary, spoke during the public comment period and said that “teacher voices have been very overlooked in this process.” She said other districts have been a merry-go-round with schools opening and closing after multiple outbreaks. Teaching online, she added, is much more consistent for students and much safer for educators.

“Right now, my students are ahead of where they’d normally be in the year,” she said, “and my attendance is higher than it’s ever been.”

Some board members had called for a teacher survey to see how many educators would want to come back in person before moving forward with the plan. That did not happen. Member Katherine Kennedy also questioned whether the numbers presented by Madden might be misleading because so many young children who get the virus are asymptomatic.

Member Samuel Hanson suggested pushing the start date for elementary schools back to the end of February to give everyone more time and to align with the end of the trimester for elementary students. Hopefully by then, he said, the case counts would be more under control and a vaccine would start to be administered. There will also be three new board members at that time, who could choose to pull back on the plan if the infection rates continue to rise.

“I get that online is not ideal for everyone,” Hanson said. “But we can’t pursue this [plan] blindly.”

Board member Michael Nemelka then shouted over Hanson in the middle of the meeting, telling Hanson that he was “wasting our time.”

“What the hell is wrong with you all?” Nemelka continued in the outburst. “I’m beginning to think after two years on this damn board, half of you don’t believe in the kids themselves. I think you actually hate them. And I’m through with this mess.”

He then briefly logged off before later returning for the vote. Nemelka has come under fire in previous board meetings for playing solitaire on his computer during the discussions and calling teachers who want to stay online “lazy.” He lost his bid for reelection this month and will be replaced in January.

The board has been deeply divided over how to hold school during the pandemic since classes were first moved online in March. Things got heated this summer, when some members sent vulgar messages during a meeting to discuss when the first day of the new academic year would be.

The discussion Tuesday night fell into a similar pattern. And several questions about the plan to reopen were left unanswered when the meeting was adjourned.

It’s unclear, for instance, if teachers will be asked to teach both online and in-person classes. And if not, if students will then have to switch teachers depending on how they choose to learn.

The superintendent also said he’d try to determine a new barrier for when community transmission is too high to reopen schools, but he did not have a sense of what that would be Tuesday.

Though the board made a decision, members said they anticipated talking about it again at their Dec. 1 meeting.