Photos: Salt Lake City teachers rally against lawmakers for pressuring the district to reopen in person

Decisions to return, they say, should be made at the local level.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City School District teachers and students rally at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

Teachers in the Salt Lake City School District pushed back with a rally Wednesday against efforts from the Legislature this session to control how and when they return to the classroom during the pandemic.

Dozens of educators stood on the steps of the Utah Capitol, holding signs that supported local control and urged lawmakers to “stop the attack.” And they chanted together, “Ho, ho, hey, hey. Stay out of my LEA,” using an abbreviation for local education agency, another way to refer to a district.

The protest comes after lawmakers first threatened to withhold bonuses from educators in the district that were being offered to all other teachers statewide for working amid the coronavirus. A senator also later drafted a bill to claw back funding for Salt Lake City schools. Both were an attempt to pressure the district into reopening in person to students this term.

The district had previously been the only one in Utah to stay entirely online when classes restarted this fall. The district’s school board had voted to remain virtual and return face-to-face when the transmission of the virus was more under control.

But after the demands from the state — including disapproval from Gov. Spencer Cox — the board agreed to reopen last month as teachers got the vaccine, and about two-thirds of students have come back. The bonuses are back on the table and the bill that would have punished the district has been redrafted to strike that language.

Still, educators said Wednesday that it wasn’t fair of the Legislature to coerce any district to return or put teachers at risk of contracting the virus. Decisions, they argued, are supposed to be made on the local level.

James Tobler, the president of the Salt Lake Education Association, the teachers union that organized the rally, said the state effectively bullied the district.

“We all want a return to in-person learning as quickly as safely possible, but student and educator health and safety must be paramount,” Tobler said in a statement. “We resent legislative attempts to usurp the authority of a locally elected school board to make decisions in the best interest of those they serve.”