Lisa Ann Thomson: Salt Lake City School Board gets an F in pandemic planning

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parents and students within the Salt Lake City School District rally for K-12 students to return in-person to school this fall, July 15, 2020.

I admit, it took me a day to get to it.

As the parent of three children, dropping everything at four o’clock in the afternoon is challenging. But the Salt Lake School District Board meeting was archived after its Facebook Live stream, and I took the time to watch it when the kids were in bed. It was a critical meeting to discuss the upcoming school year and our district is the last to announce its plans.

I was shocked. Not by the plans, but the utter lack of them.

I saw a board completely unprepared to discuss the single biggest issue that has ever faced the district: if school will start in six weeks and what will it look like. I saw a board whose members acted as if it were the first time they had thought about it. There was no evidence of having prepared and researched and studied the issues beyond “emails from my constituents.” No data from studies, no CDC guidelines, no research into what other places are doing. Nothing. Not one person was prepared to advocate for either remote learning or in-person learning or a hybrid approach.

One board member went so far as to say he was “speaking from his heart.” Bless his heart, but that’s not data and research.

I saw a board in which only one person cited an iota of data/evidence/research. That person was the student board member, who noted that in Los Angeles 50 percent of students did not check in online after schools were closed last spring. The student. The only one prepared to discuss the impacts of various scenarios for school this fall. Her first board meeting, by the way. And she was patronizingly thanked and dismissed.

I saw a board member who was wrapped in a blanket looking at something else the whole time (online comments suggested a game of solitaire). I saw a board member eating, and I heard a board member who hadn’t turned off her mic talking about getting drinks later. The unprofessionalism was astounding.

I saw a superintendent who offered a plan to start school two weeks late with seemingly no other objective than to give the schools more time. I saw no board members avail themselves of the opportunity to question the several people tuned into the meeting from the district prepared to provide answers about the proposed plan.

I saw a board member have what can only be described as a hissy fit because she had somewhere else to be (clearly more important than determining what school will look like for thousands of students and families). She went so far as to demand that no discussion happen without her in the meeting, despite that others said she could leave and they would continue. She repeatedly called for a motion to adjourn. The board president finally gave in and adjourned the meeting. It was a shocking display.

What I saw was ignorance, hubris, and unpreparedness in the face of an unprecedented circumstance. Thousands of students and families hang in the balance and this group of people acted as though they had not even thought about what should be done. Yet this is the group of people who are supposed to provide the answers. One board member even said outright she was caught off guard by the superintendent’s plan. Had they been given no heads up? No advance copy to study? No indication he was coming to the meeting with a plan?

Rather they ended the meeting with, “We need more time and more information.” And they gave themselves and the superintendent just that with voting to start school two weeks late.

My question to the board and the school district is this: What the heck have you done all summer? It’s the end of July. You haven’t been working hard to figure out how school will start in the fall? You haven’t studied the issues and the options and the scenarios and how they will impact students across the district? You haven’t studied what has been successful and challenging in other countries that have reopened schools or what other districts in our state are doing?

You haven’t figured out how you will get internet connection and computers in the hands of students who don’t have them if you start online? You haven’t studied how to keep students and staff safe if you start in person? You haven’t studied the questions of providing a protective environment for students who are abused, hungry, or homeless? You haven’t studied how to ensure that 50 percent of our students don’t ghost you?

What on earth have you done?

I hope every member of this board is replaced. Voters need to demand their removal. As a parent, I am seriously investigating every one of my options, including switching districts, going to a charter school, pricing out private schools, or finding a separate home-school curriculum.

The option I now have the least confidence in is leaving my children in the hands of this board and interim superintendent. The summer is ending. We have no more time.

Lisa Ann Thomson

Lisa Ann Thomson, Salt Lake City, is a writer with three children who (might) attend Salt Lake City schools this year.