Samuel Hanson: Salt Lake City schools a victim of legislative extortion

School board was wrong to vote to return secondary schools to in-person learning.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Larry Madden, Interim Superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District, details the district's restart plans for the 2020-21 school year at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 30, 2020. At rear is Melissa Ford, president of the Salt Lake City School District Board of Education, and Nate Salazar, board vice president.

In what I am about to say, I mean as no disrespect to the other six members of the Salt Lake City School Board. Several are dear friends and I know they have a difficult job.

Katherine Kennedy is a hero for casting the lone vote against the premature return to in-person instruction for secondary students at Tuesday’s school board meeting. Make no mistake, Salt Lake City Schools are the victim of extortion at the hands of legislators.

You may not like Katherine’s style or her rhetoric. (I don’t agree with her about everything.) You may not think that Katherine is the perfect leader for this moment. (Who is?) But when glad-handing bullies like Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson strong-arm you to disregard your constituents’ health and well-being, it’s nothing but laudable to stand up and dissent. And compared with the year we’ve just been through, it would have been easy to wait to reopen high schools until every secondary educator who wanted to had received both doses of the vaccine. Hundreds of district employees have already received a first shot.

Interim Superintendent Larry Madden has done a great job of navigating our city’s schools toward the least bad compromise possible. Like the educators he leads, he, too, deserves our gratitude and respect.

There is a reasonable (albeit sometimes heated) discussion to be had about school reopening for our city. Our board engaged in that dialogue with the public it represents and eventually concluded this winter that reopening elementary schools was worth the risk. According to preliminary data from the Salt Lake County Health Department, our county’s younger children appeared just as likely to get the virus whether or not they went to school in-person.

I didn’t advocate for that decision, but I respect it and support it as the result of an authentically representative democratic process.

The same data that led the board to reopen elementary schools led members to keep secondary students — whose risk calculus is radically different — in remote learning. Based on constituent input and expert advice, the board made the decision to keep older kids online not to deny choice, but to keep children and their families out of harm’s way.

And the district offered small group in-person instruction to supplement its remote learning modality. According to some parents, having fewer bodies in school buildings actually made more in-person opportunities realistic for their special education students.

Legislative leadership has failed to show up for reasoned debate. Instead they threaten and devalue teachers and coerce local school boards seemingly for fun. Getting their way at the board meeting Tuesday night didn’t even stop them from continuing to support Sen. Todd Weiler’s SB107, a voucher bill aimed at defunding our city’s schools which passed out of committee Wednesday.

Where is the bill funding the rapid, frequent, in-school coronavirus testing we need to make learning as safe as possible for unvaccinated children and families? Where is the bill funding a vast new army of contact tracers? Utah’s death rate statewide remains comparatively low only because Utah’s population skews younger and whiter than the rest of America. The same is not true for our capital city or for Salt Lake County’s west side.

Coronavirus isn’t over. Please, let’s all engage in all of the mitigation strategies available to each of us — not just when it’s convenient. Changing our behavior will save lives — like the life of the late and much-loved West High paraprofessional Eddye Valenzuela or the mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and grandparents of Salt Lake City students we have already lost.

Samuel Hanson

Samuel Hanson is a professional dancer and arts educator. He recently finished serving the remainder of the final term of his late mother, Heather Bennett, who died in 2019 after serving on the Salt Lake City School Board for 14 years.

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