Tribune Editorial: Committee vote wrongly punishes Salt Lake City teachers

No matter what anyone thinks of school board decisions, teachers shouldn’t suffer.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Meadowlark Elementary School teacher John Arthur interacting with his students on Zoom, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. Arthur is working through the kinks of teaching his 6th grade kids, many of which don't have internet access, online. He was named the Utah Teacher of the Year.

Leaders of the Utah Legislature are not the only people who wish the Salt Lake City School District’s classrooms were open for in-person learning. Those who think it is past time for education to go back to normal include many parents (including those who have taken the matter to court), some students and probably not a few teachers.

But it was churlish in the extreme for the Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee, in a party-line vote, to deny a proposed $1,500-per-teacher pandemic bonus to teachers in the Salt Lake City district unless the district reopens its classrooms by next month.

This is legislative-level hypocrisy, given that many lawmakers are participating in hearings and sessions via remote video. For their own safety. And given that teachers in online-only charter schools are still eligible for the bonus.

Gov. Gary Herbert, a lame duck who has nothing to lose politically, and Gov.-elect Spencer Cox, who styles himself as a big supporter of education, should be pushing hard for the full Legislature to reverse this gratuitous slap at education professionals.

The most obvious reason why the vote was wrong is that it punishes the wrong people. No matter what you may think about the fact that Salt Lake City remains the only district in the state to be operating totally via remote learning, it wasn’t the teachers who made that decision. It was the members of the Salt Lake City School Board.

The board has not exactly covered itself with glory recently, in this or in many other matters. The dysfunctional governing body has been rocked by resignations and internal strife, including some thoroughly embarrassing incidents during its online meetings.

But even the most exemplary of school boards would have a difficult time managing and making decisions amid a global pandemic. Boards in districts where the default position has been to remain open have had to react to outbreaks in specific schools and adapt on the fly.

Despite the personal, social and developmental pain associated with online schooling, state figures show that cases spiked statewide right around the time that classes began last fall, and that detected cases among Salt Lake City school-aged residents are significantly lower than those in the rest of the state.

The capital city, especially its lower-income west side, has been the hardest hit by COVID-19 outbreaks. And neither the state nor the federal government has been doing its part on everything from testing and tracing to assistance with emergency budget needs.

By leaving Salt Lake City teachers out of the planned bonus structure, lawmakers act as if they believe that those who are teaching via Zoom or other remote means aren’t pulling their weight. That’s simply untrue.

The Salt Lake Tribune has documented many problems with remote learning. Enrollment, attendance and grades are down in Salt Lake City as families grow weary of a means of education that is new to everyone and not workable for many households, especially those that lack high-speed internet connections or don’t have parents who are able to supervise the process.

Again, that’s not the teachers’ fault.

This urge to punish Salt Lake City teachers not only blames the victims, but it also obscures something the Legislature might otherwise be very proud of.

In a rare act of support for public education in Utah, the appropriations committee voted to start the 2021 session with a $400 million boost to the state education budget, a welcome gesture that may grow even more generous as the session moves along. The move demonstrates that legislative leadership realizes that public schools have been shortchanged over the years, are in even greater need of support now, and that state revenue hasn’t taken as hard a blow as was expected during the pandemic.

Salt Lake City teachers have just as much right to, just as much need for, that financial support as the teachers in every other district.