Salt Lake City schools fire back at Spencer Cox for saying online-only classes are damaging kids

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox speaks while debating Chris Peterson in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020.

Salt Lake City school officials are defending the district’s choice to hold online-only classes after Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox called the decision a “huge mistake” that could be damaging children.

The city school district is the only one in the state that has entirely sworn off in-person learning this fall to protect staff and students from COVID-19 — but Cox during a Tuesday evening gubernatorial debate said remote classes might be harming students more than the disease. That was the first time district leaders had heard from the lieutenant governor on the subject, according to Salt Lake City School District Interim Superintendent Larry Madden.

“State leaders have chosen not to issue statewide mandates to guide our state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Madden said in a prepared statement. “Touting a belief in local control, they have instead left crucial parts of Utah’s public response up to locally elected government leaders, including locally elected school boards.”

Cox, who is the GOP candidate for governor, has expressed support for Gov. Gary Herbert’s decision not to impose a statewide order on face coverings and made the argument for letting local governments develop community-specific approaches to the pandemic.

Madden says that’s exactly what the district is doing. In light of rising case counts, it’s decided to stick with virtual instruction through at least the first academic quarter, which ends Nov. 9.

“Our goal is to bring students back into the classroom as soon as possible, but we need to make sure we do it safely,” Madden continued. “During a global pandemic that has hit Salt Lake City — and those living within our school district boundaries — particularly hard, it was important to our local school board and school district leaders to take into account the important balance between the health and safety of our students and employees and the ongoing quest to provide students with the best educational opportunities.”

The district has said it will return students to classrooms in person if the average positivity rate in the greater county was at 5% of those tested. Currently, it’s at about 12%. The district is also watching the cases per 100,000 people. To reopen, it will need to be below 10. Right now, it’s at 32.9. Those metrics have been increasing with the recent spikes.

Madden said students in the Salt Lake City district have “continued to learn safely online," even as other school districts grapple with COVID-19 outbreaks. At an emergency meeting Tuesday evening, officials in the Jordan School District stopped in-person classes at two high schools due to a wave of infections.

Other schools have remained open against Utah Department of Health guidance that schools should shut down if more than 15 individuals test positive in the same time frame.

Cox on Tuesday evening suggested that Salt Lake City schools should get students back in class fast.

“The Salt Lake City School District is the only school district in the state that has not gone back to in-person learning,” Cox said during the debate against Democrat Chris Peterson. “And that’s a huge mistake. It is damaging our kids, and that needs to change right now.”

Cox’s campaign on Thursday indicated it had no comment in response to the the district’s push back.