Salt Lake City schools reach deal with Utah lawmakers on teacher bonuses

In-person classes for middle and high school students would begin in February.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Young students join the protest at East High in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in response to more students failing this fall with classes entirely online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Utah lawmakers and the Salt Lake City School District reached an agreement Friday that will allow students to return to class in January and February. In exchange, Republicans in the Legislature will make sure teachers in the district receive bonuses like every other public school educator in the state.

On Wednesday, legislative leaders proposed $1,500 bonuses for all licensed educators in appreciation for their efforts during the pandemic. Non-administrative staffers will receive $1,000. But, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, moved to exclude teachers and staffers in districts that did not offer an in-person classroom option. That singled out the Salt Lake City District, which is the only one that is still mostly online.

Charters that operate fully online were not similarly excluded.

Since that decision, which caused an uproar on social media, lawmakers and district officials have been negotiating, resulting in Friday’s agreement.

Elementary school students in Salt Lake City will return to the classroom Jan. 25, as the district had originally planned. Now, secondary students will resume in-person instruction Feb. 8. The proposal must be approved by the Salt Lake City School Board during its next meeting, which is Jan. 5.

“I am grateful that the leaders of the Salt Lake school district have worked with us over the last 48 hours to find a path to get all the students in the state of Utah an in-classroom learning experience,” Wilson said Friday night. “The parents and students in Salt Lake deserve the same opportunity as students across the rest of the state.”

As part of their reasoning for withholding the bonuses, Republican leaders cited reports from The Salt Lake Tribune that elementary students in Salt Lake City were failing classes at three times the rate they were last year. Middle and high school students were also failing classes at a rate that was above last year.

In addition to the poor classroom performance, Wilson shared emails from parents in the district praising the move to withhold the bonuses on his Twitter account.

He insisted that families needed to have the option for their students to learn in person. And several filed a lawsuit this week seeking just that.

The idea to use the teacher bonuses as a carrot, as well as a stick, had its genesis in a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Tuesday focused on a plan to boost education funding significantly. Many lawmakers expressed concern that it would be unfair to teachers and staffers in districts that had already returned to in-person classes. Legislative leaders had apprised Gov.-elect Spencer Cox of their plan, and did not encounter resistance. However, neither Cox nor Gov. Gary Herbert were involved in the talks with the Salt Lake City School District.

Earlier this month, Herbert announced Utah school teachers would start receiving the coronavirus vaccine right after front-line health workers. Teachers in the Salt Lake City School District are scheduled to receive the first of two doses as early as Jan. 8 and 9, with the second coming 21 days later. The timeline means the vaccine should be fully effective for teachers by the time middle and high school students return to class.

In a statement Friday night, Salt Lake City School District interim Superintendent Larry Madden said the availability of the vaccine was a big factor in the decision to return to class.

“Coupled with COVID precautions inside our buildings to keep our students safe during in-person learning, the vaccine provides us one more tool to provide a quality education to our students, whether in person or online,” he said.

Previously, the district’s board had chosen not to allow secondary students to return based on data from the Salt Lake County Health Department that showed older kids were spreading the virus at much higher rates in the districts that opened face-to-face than they were when they stayed home in Salt Lake City. Elementary students did not, though. There was no significant difference in spread when they stayed home or went to school.

That data did not include teachers who had gotten sick.

Still, Madden said the district’s priority has always been to bring students back in person “as soon as we could safely provide that option.” And “this timeline provides our secondary educators enough time to receive both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Families who want to continue learning online, he added, will continue to have the option to do so. It’s not clear yet if teachers will have the same choice. The district said it would release more details in January.

Several teachers have spoken out in frustration both at the idea of being forced to return to the classroom and the suggestion that they haven’t worked as hard while instructing online. They also say the board has made the call to remain virtual — not them.

They started a petition that has more than 10,000 signatures to include all teachers in the stipends. It states: “Regardless of whether teachers and staff have been teaching in person, online, or both, ALL teachers and staff give way more effort than they are ever paid for.”

Several teachers added their comments, noting how many hours they have worked this year.

One wrote: “I am a teacher and I know how hard I have worked. I know how hard my colleagues have worked.”

The teacher bonuses were part of a $400 million funding package put forward by the Legislature’s top budgeting committee Wednesday. Lawmakers also proposed adding $90 million to cover student enrollment growth and inflation.