Most students in the Salt Lake City District started school Sept. 14, a full three weeks after their in-state peers. The delay was caused by both preparation time required for an ill-conceived, remote-only learning plan and unforeseen weather. Now that enrollment and attendance numbers are known, alarm bells are ringing.

Of highest concern:

  • Enrollment is down 1,000 students, on track to be the steepest decline in the district’s history.
  • 700 high school students still need computers.
  • 3,000 students had not logged in by the second day of school.

Anecdotal evidence provides more color. Teachers have told me that they are seeing a nonparticipation rate of around 10%, mostly from minority students.

As a parent of two students who have laptops, internet and at-home support, I recognize with crystal clarity that they have an unfair advantage relative to thousands of others. My understanding of that privilege is why I have chosen to write this piece.

Families are shouldering responsibilities that they are ill-prepared for or do not have the resources to manage. The district has created an environment of systemic racism where higher-income students are attending class while lower-income students are not because they can’t afford a computer and are not being provided one.

Under these less-than-ideal circumstances, families are making it work, but it is impacting their ability to do their job and contribute to society. This includes already exhausted essential workers.

It is easy to blame interim Superintendent Larry Madden for this mess. However, it would be unfair to tarnish his reputation as a stellar principal and teacher. The poor guy took on the job to help the district and is on record saying that “he feels like someone gave him the keys to a car without knowing how to drive.” Instead the blame lies with the folks who threw him those keys — the Salt Lake City School Board.

Even before COVID-19, the board was a hot mess. Board President Tiffany Sandberg stepped down as president in February and resigned from the board in April because the board was fractured. Lexi Cunningham, a qualified superintendent, wouldn’t do as the board demanded so her contract wasn’t renewed.

Public comment is not accepted in meetings and emails go unreturned. When there is dialogue, it is in the form of politically charged justification like this from board member Katherine Kennedy regarding Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines: “These new guidelines were designed to put pressure on communities to open schools because President [Donald] Trump believes it will help his campaign to do this. I will tell you that I don’t want him to win. There could be no worse outcome in November.”

Interestingly, the CDC guidelines parallel the guidance of the American Pediatric Association.

The board has abandoned its own shared governance framework of delegation, openness, trust and equity, decision-making, review and adjudication, accountability, and dialogue and communication. Current challenges require input that leads to creative problem-solving. Shared governance would provide that input.

Board member Mike Nemelka foresaw this mess and opposed the plan. Others, like Melissa Ford and Kristi Swett, now understand the consequences and proposed a renewed focus on shared governance and a reevaluation of the plan. However, they were met with an emotional plea from Kennedy to stay the course because they are “saving lives.”

Let’s be clear: They are not saving lives. They are facilitating community spread of COVID-19 by forcing families to go to school outside of their own neighborhood. Additionally, it is not their job. If they want to save lives, they should work to create a more realistic plan that will help exhausted essential workers (who are actually saving lives) like the swing-shift nursing assistant whose situation was recently shared with me. A single mom with four kids, she is at a breaking point already.

The board needs to focus on their mission of “Excellence and Equity: every student, every classroom, every day,” which is the one thing they are failing at. Student board representative Arundhati Oommen said it best, “One student left behind is a failure for all of us.”

The addictive combination of authority and arrogance embraced by the board has created this mess, and that is why we need an intervention.

Eric Bergstrom

Eric Bergstrom, Salt Lake City, is a chief strategy officer, parent of two high school students and the spouse of a teacher.