After facing pressure, Salt Lake City School District will reopen junior high and high schools for in-person learning

The decision likely upends a lawsuit and mounting threats from the Legislature.

In the face of a lawsuit and increasing pressure from legislators to reopen, Salt Lake City’s school board yielded Tuesday night and will have its junior high and high school students back in classrooms in person starting next month.

It will be the first time that those kids, in grades seven through 12, are able to attend school for a full day face-to-face with their teachers since the pandemic began last spring and classes were moved online. The approved reopening will start Feb. 8.

“This plan is based on data and science,” said Melissa Ford, the board’s president. “We need to be solution-oriented for our children. And I think this is a step in the right direction for finding a path forward that balances everything.”

The decision came at the tail end of a late Tuesday board meeting, which stretched into more than four hours of discussion and debate. The measure passed on a 6-1 vote, with board member Katherine Kennedy as the lone dissenter.

She said she was concerned about students and teachers contracting the virus. “Transmission happens in schools,” she said. “We need to accept this fact: People will get sick.”

Ford brushed off Kennedy’s examples, including some about the long-term effects of COVID-19, as being “anecdotal” and “based on fear.” She insisted the district is acting cautiously in moving forward.

Secondary students will now return, if they choose, with one half coming in for in-person instruction on Mondays and Thursdays and the other half on Tuesdays and Fridays. The remaining three days will be online in a hybrid model, with everyone learning virtually on Wednesdays.

The hope, said interim Superintendent Larry Madden, is to ease into it and “maximize our ability to social distance” by cutting the student population essentially in half, split alphabetically. “A couple of our high schools are really crowded in the halls,” he said.

Those who want to continue with all remote learning, though, will also be able to do so.

This year, Salt Lake City School District has been the only public K-12 district in Utah to start entirely online, with all 40 others offering at least some in-person option.

The board had previously voted to allow elementary students to come back beginning Jan. 25, and roughly 64% have elected to do so.

But it had held off on having older kids return after reviewing data from the county health department that showed higher transmission rates with those age 12 and older, including spread to older adults, such as teachers. It planned to delay a start indefinitely until all school staff could get both doses of the vaccine.

That created serious tension with parents and lawmakers who have been pushing Salt Lake City to give all kids the option to learn face-to-face, like every other district in the state.

It came to a head earlier Tuesday, when eight parents who’d filed a lawsuit against the district got their first court hearing. Their attorneys argued that forcing all students to learn virtually has caused significant harm.

“Our students have sat out and been excluded,” said attorney Ryan Bell. And he suggested that the district has violated the Utah Constitution in not giving students equal access to a quality education.

He pointed to students’ grades dipping significantly across the district during online schooling, asking the judge to issue an injunction for the district to reopen immediately so it can address that. Roughly 4,000 Salt Lake City secondary students received one or more F’s or incompletes in the first quarter. That’s 1,500 more students failing a class than last year. And elementary students’ grades were even worse.

Bell called it “an epidemic of failing grades.” And one student, Ella Fiefia, testified about how it’s personally impacted her first year of middle school — causing her to get lower scores than she’s ever received before.

Lawyers representing the district, as well as the Utah Board of Education, pushed back, though, saying the decision on how to instruct students is a local one and is ultimately up to the Salt Lake City School District to decide what’s best. There was never any requirement issued by the state to reopen, though it was encouraged.

Both Ford and Madden testified, saying in-person instruction is preferred and they’ve tried to assist those who are failing, but they first wanted to ensure that teachers are safe. Now that some Utah educators have had the opportunity to get the first dose of the vaccine — about 1,100 in the district by the end of this week, or one-third of staff — Madden said he’s become more comfortable with reopening junior high and high schools on a limited basis without waiting for the second dose.

He hopes to return fully, maybe as early as the next five or six weeks, if it goes well and as teachers become fully inoculated against the virus. A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he added, has also suggested that spread in secondary schools is not as bad as previously thought.

“If we have the opportunity for teachers to get vaccinated and we feel it’s safe for them to return to the classroom, we can bring in students that are not being successful in the remote environment,” he said during the court hearing.

His focus, he said, has been on reopening “sustainably” without having to open and close like other districts in Salt Lake County have when there’s been outbreaks in schools. “We chose what we thought would be the best education we could provide,” Madden added. He acknowledged it hasn’t worked for all students, though, and 1,230 have enrolled in another district — with most, 880, going to nearby Granite School District. There are about 20,000 kids total in Salt Lake City.

After eight hours of arguments in the online hearing, 3rd District Judge Adam Mow said he wouldn’t make a decision until seeing what Salt Lake City school board members decided to do Tuesday night. That might make any ruling from the court moot, he noted. And with the plan for to reopen, it appears to have done so.

It has also likely upended efforts by state lawmakers to turn up the pressure on the district to return to in-person classes.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, made SB107 public Tuesday. The bill says any student in a school district that doesn’t offer in-person classes can move to a school that does, and their portion of state funding will immediately follow them. That would apply even if they move to a private school, which it typically doesn’t, and wouldn’t require the usual year to take effect.

Weiler called the concept “backpack funding.” And it was meant to encourage Salt Lake City School District not to lose any more money and reopen.

“The bill only takes effect if there’s not an option for in-person classes,” said Weiler, noting they have until Feb. 8. “We’re running out of school year, here. That’s the problem.”

Lawmakers plan to advance the bill to the Senate floor, where it will likely sit as a looming threat if Salt Lake City does not follow through.

It comes after lawmakers have also threatened to exclude teachers in the district from a $1,500 bonus this year.

The extra money was offered for educating kids during the pandemic and Salt Lake City was being kept out as long as it stayed online. In negotiations late last year, the district had agreed to throw out its original metrics for reopening — waiting until the county’s test positivity rate was below 5% for seven days — in exchange for teachers getting the bonus and the vaccine.

When the district made the deal, though, it was told its teachers would be vaccinated on Jan. 8 and 9. And it set the Feb. 8 date to reopen secondary schools because it would be about a week after educators received the second dose and were to be fully immunized.

Delays by the federal government in shipping the vaccine to Utah have now pushed the shots back to the end of January or early February for most school staff, who are slated to get them after medical personnel and long-term care residents.

The Legislature, though, refused to budge on the date for reopening. And if the district waited for the vaccines, the bonuses were off the table and the bill to cut funding would be put on.

Kennedy, who opposed returning under the pressure from parents and the state, said Tuesday night that board members “shouldn’t be bullied into making our decisions.” And she questioned how much influence the lawsuit, in particular, had on district. She said those who filed it are “highly privileged” and have the choice to return. Teachers, she added, don’t.

“Our experiment is going to end in illness and possibly death,” she warned.

Other board members said they need to at least make the attempt and listen to parents who wanted the option for their kids to return, especially if it’s better for their education.

“Legislative pressure is the last thing on my mind,” said board member Nate Salazar. “The priority has to be our children.”

Member Jenny Sika added, “Let’s see what unfolds.” And member Kristi Swett compared the district to neighboring Canyons School District, which is roughly the same size. The board there, she noted, voted to return entirely in person like normal.

Canyons, though, has had some spread, including a massive outbreak at Corner Canyon High, where more than 70 kids got COVID-19 and one teacher was hospitalized. Kennedy pointed out that even with allowing students into Salt Lake City schools in small groups has led to some transmission. And a paraprofessional in the district died last week, though it’s not clear where he contracted the virus.

Board member Mohamed Baayd, who has three children attending school in the district, said he was torn before ultimately voting to support a return for secondary schools. He suggested that while cases of the virus have been high in Salt Lake City, they would be even higher if the district had returned in-person sooner.

“I promise you our numbers wouldn’t be where they are now,” he said.

But, he noted, it’s a balance between the short term and the long term. And Baayd said he couldn’t justify kids not graduating because schools were remote and they failed their classes. He takes some comfort in the precautions that will be required with reopening, including wearing masks, sanitizing and encouraging social distancing.

About 400 people watched the meeting on YouTube. And a few spoke during the public comment period, including a senior at West High who was opposed to reopening and a mom who said virtual learning hasn’t worked for her kids. Jamie Slack read the district’s mission statement, which promises “excellence and equity for every student.” That hasn’t been met during the pandemic, she suggested.

That caught the attention, too, of Senate President Stuart Adams, who explicitly addressed the Salt Lake City School District in his speech Tuesday on the opening day of the Legislature. He argued for a need to return to in-person schooling amid reports of “a 600% increase in students failing all classes, despite teachers’ best efforts” as the district continues with online coursework.

“We can’t let this happen in Utah,” Adams said. “Our kids’ futures are at risk. With teachers now having vaccination priority, Salt Lake City School District needs to start face-to-face instruction now and give each student the best opportunities to learn.”

— Salt Lake Tribune reporters Bryan Schott and Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.