Hillary Stirling: Utah should use its budget surplus to help students struggling with pandemic

COVID-19 has upended the trajectory of our children’s lives.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign regarding masks at Hawthorne Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.

The Utah Legislature could have $614 million or more in budget surplus this year. This surplus would be best spent fixing the problems the pandemic has created for our students over the last year and a half. These children and young adults are our future; they are struggling, and they are more than worth the investment.

It might be hard for some to understand how thoroughly COVID-19 has upended the trajectory of our children’s lives. For perspective, none of this year’s kindergarteners, first graders or second graders have experienced a non-pandemic school year. The last time our high school seniors had a normal year was their freshman year. Last year, Southern Utah University saw a 400% increase in the number of students seeking mental health services.

In a myriad of ways, young people’s lives have been impacted. Birthdays, graduations, dances, sports, friendships and social learning opportunities have all been curtailed or cut off entirely. They’ve seen empty shelves in stores and empty cupboards at home. They’ve lost loved ones to long-term illness, disability and death. They have been forced to face the grown-up problems of the pandemic with the social and emotional skills of children.

In many ways, schools are our best public resource for helping these students, but our education system is also struggling. Even before the pandemic started, our public education system was facing teacher shortages. Now there are also shortages for substitute teachers and bus drivers. Specialists who should be working one-on-one with special-needs students are instead being pulled in to teach full classes.

There aren’t enough school counselors to provide mental health support for the many students who need it. Despite the best efforts of individual educators and other school professionals, our most effective system for addressing our kids’ academic and emotional setbacks is struggling as much as the students are.

In fairness to the Legislature, they did direct additional funding toward our schools back in February, but we are now in November. Our children and their schools are still largely in crisis mode. With a surplus at the state’s disposal, investment in the rising generation — in school counselors and nurses, in programs that teach emotional resilience, in school nutrition programs — will give our state the best bang for the buck. Our public school system is well positioned to provide these needed services at the lowest cost to taxpayers.

Some are calling for a tax cut considering this year’s surplus but considering the desperate needs of our children and their schools, a tax cut would be a wasted opportunity. Our state economy is already booming, with an unemployment rate that’s second lowest in the nation, and a tax cut would only stimulate it even more. Our schools — and more importantly, the struggling children and young adults they serve — need the support and investment far more.

The drumbeat for more than a year now has been that we must keep kids in school, no matter the cost. The Legislature’s recognition that schools are essential for children’s wellbeing is heartening. We have an opportunity to make sure these essential schools have the resources they need to serve our children and young adults and help them thrive despite the setbacks of COVID-19. It’s time for the Legislature to put our money where their mouth is.

Hillary Stirling

Hillary Stirling is chair of the United Utah Party.

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