With fewer students choosing to attend school online, Salt Lake City School District is exploring the future of its virtual elementary — including the possibility of closing it.
The district also has the option of sending Salt Lake Virtual Elementary students to Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary, in Jordan School District, which dropped from 604 students at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to 216 last year.
Rocky Peak has since rebounded a bit, though, to 273 students — which is more than are enrolled in some of Salt Lake City’s brick-and-mortar elementary schools. [Read more: Students are still leaving Salt Lake City schools]
And it is three times the students at Salt Lake Virtual Elementary, where as of March, 87 students were enrolled, with the number “projected to go down from there,” said Logan Hall, the district’s executive director for human resource services, at a school board meeting last month.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, families really were looking for additional elementary synchronous options,” Hall said. “That interest has declined significantly towards the beginning of the creation of Salt Lake Virtual Elementary.”
But teacher Emmery Stock told board members at a February meeting that Salt Lake Virtual is a “vital option,” offering safe and individualized opportunities for students to succeed and able to respond to the specific needs of families.
“The connection between school and home is bridged,” she said. “... I teach alongside parents. I see baby siblings, holiday decorations, every single pet you can imagine, and many aspects of my students’ lives the teacher of a traditional classroom can’t.”
The virtual school, started in the 2021-22 school year with federal pandemic relief funds for education, serves grades K-6. The school board is expected to decide its future on June 6.
Should it stay or should it go?
Two of the district’s four options would keep the virtual school open and within the district.
The first would maintain Salt Lake Virtual Elementary as a distinct school, which Hall said would cost over $200,000 just to maintain an administrator and office support alone, with additional costs to maintain teachers as well.
Current staffing at Salt Lake Virtual includes an administrator, administrative secretary, eight teachers and additional support staff.
“With the current allocations, that’s not feasible with the next-year projections based on the student enrollment projections,” Hall said.
After years of declining enrollment, only 57% of the space in the district’s physical elementary buildings was being used last fall, a critical state audit found. The board voted in February to study potential boundary changes, including possible closures, for elementary schools throughout the city.
The second option for Salt Lake Virtual would be to create a new virtual program within an existing school within the district.
In this case, administrative and other support staff would be provided by the selected school, with additional funds used to hire .5 full-time equivalents, or FTE, of a teacher. The additional .5 FTE would cost the district around $50,000 to $60,000, Hall said.
The other two options would involve sending students to virtual classrooms outside the district; either Rocky Peak or Utah Online School, which is sponsored by Washington County School District.
Rocky Peak would provide students with both synchronous and asynchronous learning options, as well as an optional program where students could do in-person, hands-on activities twice a week. Utah Online would be fully asynchronous, with materials mailed to students.
Jordan School District has both virtual middle and high school options, while Utah Online serves K-12.
District spokesperson Yándary Chatwin said the Salt Lake City is still figuring out whether this would mean a partnership between districts or simply sending their students to the other districts.
Hall, along with the district’s executive director of teaching and learning, Tiffany Hall is still having those discussions with officials from the Jordan School District, Chatwin said.
“I don’t know when they’d come back to the board, but I think they’d like to flesh out something a little bit more in-depth,” Chatwin said.
“All Utah students are welcome to enroll and attend Rocky Peak,” said Jordan School District spokesperson Sandra Riesgraf in an email. “We will provide space for them, and we are happy to welcome new students.”
Washington County School District did not respond to requests for comment.
Board members share questions, concerns
Logan Hall said during the meeting that no matter what is decided about Salt Lake Virtual, the district would make sure its existing staff would have options to remain employed.
“It is important to note that I don’t know what the board is going to decide in June, … and so I’ve been working with the staff both to make sure that they are secure in finding positions for next year in the event that the school does not exist in its current format,” he said.
Board member Mohamed Baayd shared his concerns regarding not only losing students to other districts — especially as the district battles already declining enrollment numbers — but also having to “reinvent the wheel” with an online program if another incident like COVID-19 were to happen.
“If COVID’s cousin comes back and we get hit, it’s probably going to cost us even more to reinvent the wheel again,” Baayd said.
Tiffany Hall said that if another COVID-level incident happened again, the district would be prepared, compared to when the pandemic first hit.
Regarding the idea to place a new virtual program in an existing school, board member Bryan Jensen asked whether Parkview or Newman elementaries would have the space and capacity. Logan Hall said both schools would be able to host the program.
Because Salt Lake Virtual was opened as a school, according to Chatwin, the board would need to follow the formal school closure process if it were to be shut down. The board took an initial step in that process in February, in case it chooses that option.
Future steps include getting public comment at the June 6 meeting from community members who would be affected by the decision, and then an official public hearing where the board could take action.
Chatwin said the district is taking into account all the feedback it has gotten from stakeholders, including parents and students who have continued to show interest in the school.
“We’re looking into how else we might serve these families and provide that form of education that they’re looking for, for their students,” Chatwin said. “It might not look the same as the virtual elementary, but we’re working to explore the options that make the most sense for the district and for these families that we value.”