Gay Lynn Bennion: Utah schools need state support in adapting to the pandemic

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) The playground at Hawthorne Elementary in Salt Lake City is taped off so it can't be used as schools around the state remained closed because of the coronavirus pandemic on Monday, March 23, 2020.

As the Utah Legislature conducts this historic virtual special session, education requires major consideration.

As citizens, we are grateful for an historic 6% increase in the weighted pupil unit school funding formula provided by the 2020 legislative session. However, State School Superintendent Sydnee Dickson acknowledges that, despite an heroic effort by teachers and administrators to reach and keep all students engaged in learning, some students have become “disengaged” and are not learning much from home.

She foresees needs for assessment and online or perhaps school-based courses over the summer, if health concerns permit, and outreach to teach and perhaps supply parents who have not had the technology and/or ability to support children in learning from home.

Fortunately, Utah’s $921 million rainy day fund is constitutionally bound to public and higher education, so teacher salaries should not be frozen or cut. If anything, their pay should increase given the additional time and effort they are giving now and into the summer helping students progress.

Now is the time to explore the best use of these surplus funds. Local teachers are witnessing the trauma of the pandemic through the eyes of their students and asking for smaller class sizes and increased number of counselors and social workers to assist students as families recover.

One teacher says, “Our schools desperately need more counselors and social workers. I wish you could see these specialists providing specialized care to our families via phone, video conference, and in small group settings. Having more counselors in our building (and decreased class sizes in classrooms) has no drawbacks. Students receive a better education, both academically and emotionally, when there are more counselors and decreased class sizes.”

The Legislature is looking at a rule that would require the governor to seek input from lawmakers before making emergency health decisions. Legislators want input and control. Ironically, this is exactly what teachers, administrators and school boards have been asking for from the Legislature.

In 2019, School Lands Trust Funds sent $82.66 million to Utah School Community Councils. These local groups of parents, teachers and principals decide where the funds can best improve their schools, but they are limited by the Legislature on where funds can go.

Midvale Elementary, where they are literally “building mustangs,” is an example of the tremendous results possible when control is at the school level, rather than at the Legislature. Principal Chip Watts engaged with Utah Education Policy Center at the University of Utah. Input from teachers identified student behavior as key to improving learning.

Now class begins “with a classroom meeting, where students gather, engage in conversation and using a research-based social-emotional curriculum, teachers can assess whether students are ready to learn or have an issue that requires the help of the school’s counselors or mental health professionals.”

Local autonomy has allowed this school to go from a 50-70% teacher turnover in 2015 to just having a handful of teachers leave in 2019, going from a “critical needs” school to a “developing school”.

Again from a teacher: “At this moment, teachers need fewer meetings and less micromanaging. Over the summer and into the school year, we will need training in implementing curriculum and teaching after trauma. The main lines for teachers (until we are at an appropriate international ratio) will be smaller class sizes and increased wages. Adding counseling supports for all adults in the building will come into play, especially since Utah already struggles with mental health and opiate addiction.”

Utah is blessed with some of the most children per capita in the nation. Let’s give them, parents and teachers serving them the support and funding they need to thrive.

Gay Lynn Bennion

Gay Lynn Bennion, Cottonwood Heights, is a volunteer teacher, director of the education committee of the Women’s State Legislative Council of Utah and a Democratic candidate for the Utah House of Representatives, District 46.