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Commentary: A drive to improve grades in Salt Lake City isn’t worth the risk of spreading COVID-19

In-person classes won’t lead to fewer Fs, just more coronavirus cases.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michael Crookston, Davis High band teacher, is vaccinated by registered nurse Bruno Gonzalez as the Davis County School District begins COVID-19 vaccinations for its teachers at the Davis County Legacy Center in Farmington on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.

The journalism class of East High School, working to broadcast different stories and voices, wants to address The Salt Lake Tribune’s Dec. 5 story about failing grades in the Salt Lake City School District, “The number of failing Salt Lake City middle and high school students has skyrocketed as all attend classes online.”

This year has been incredibly taxing on practically every aspect of our lives. Current events are taking a toll on our health, social lives and education. This is to be expected. There is no way we are going to get through this historic period unscathed, or unchanged. The pandemic has already changed our entire way of life, including making it necessary for us to attend school online. As circumstances shift, so too should our approach to school.

Right now, Utah has had over 330,000 reported cases of COVID-19, and since your article was published, we have exceeded 1,500 deaths as a result. The positivity rate for COVID in the state has been in the 20s. Under those conditions, at least until the state has followed through with its plan to vaccinate teachers and school staff, it would be extremely dangerous and reckless to reopen schools in person.

Online school does not have to “raise” failing grades. The grading system of “Fs” was already problematic; it did not accurately reflect students’ education and learning. In light of our educational circumstances right now, it should be completely abandoned. A single letter grade is not an accurate representation of students’ circumstances and efforts.

Many students have had extra responsibilities placed upon them during this time. Some have had to get jobs, or second jobs, to assist their families. Many more have become their families’ caretakers, watching younger siblings at home while their parents or guardians work.

The pandemic, and everything else that has happened this year, is taking its toll on our mental and emotional well-being too. We are tired, burnt out, and right now, all of that is being represented by a single letter. We often take our grades to heart. We do not need the stress, anxiety and unhappiness that Fs can cause right now. More often than not, Fs do nothing except discourage students from attempting to learn and improve. In a time when it is already hard to be motivated, we should do everything we can to remove superfluous discouragements.

Online school is a work in progress. We have only tried this model for five months. That is not enough time to have refined the process enough to be perfect. There are bugs that need to be fixed, certainly, but in-person school will also be a work in progress that would need revision. Class sizes and the school building’s ventilation system need to be taken into account when talking about bringing students back to in-person learning.

Students themselves are taking initiative to assist their own grades, as well as help others. Students from East High School are tutoring students at Glendale Middle School. In-person school at this time won’t guarantee better grades, but it will guarantee more COVID cases.

COVID-19 is not a hoax. This disease has more than proved itself to be a huge threat. Returning to in-person school would increase its threat tenfold. Since COVID-19 is still raging in our state, we need to find ways to make online school work better for students. Public focus has shifted away from actual education to grades, but we need to reprioritize.

Even if we give students the option to return to in person school, there still will be some who remain online. We need to focus on how we can better help online students rather than pretending coming back into classrooms will solve everything. There needs to be more accessible outlets for online students to ask for help, as going back immediately will not solve all education and mental health issues. Mental health and failing grades were already issues. Looking into mental health right now may be more important than just putting kids right back into school. Students need support and communication, rather than grades that tell a single story.

As a journalism class, as well as high school students, we would like to see more perspectives and voices shared in regards to this story with a survey or interviews with the students that are going through the topic firsthand. We want more sides of this story, including interviews with teachers. It is important to get a broader scope of how students are feeling. If grades are the problem, then there should be more research into what can be done to improve them, instead of running to in-person school immediately during a global pandemic. There is a variety of perspectives, opinions and expertise on this issue, and we would like to see more of it represented when writing about this topic.

The East High School Leopard

Daffodil Buchert, Alex Campbell, Kesha Palmer and Ruby Bernier are the editors of the East High School newspaper, The Leopard.

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