Tribune Editorial: State must help Utah schools make up time lost to pandemic

Lawmakers have earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars for education. In times like these, we need more.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Highland Park Elementary PTA hosts a "teacher parade," on Friday, May 1, 2020, in Salt Lake City as teachers and staff drive along most of the school boundary streets to celebrate teachers and students during the coronavirus pandemic which closed down schools.

Life happens. Even in the third grade.

For any of a number of reasons, good and bad, by choice or due to unfortunate circumstances, students miss a day, or a week, or more, of school. Then it is time to catch up, quickly, before students fall even further behind. It is more work for the student, the parents and the teachers, but it happens every day, in every school.

But it has never been like this before.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left large numbers of students weeks or months behind. Rather than leave families and schools to struggle alone, risking levels of failure that will affect the whole of the community, it is up to the state of Utah to make an extra effort to help.

Help does not mean the Legislature punishing the Salt Lake City School District — which can only mean harming the district’s students and teachers — because the school board didn’t make the decisions that state officials wanted.

If lawmakers really want to help students and families, they will find the money to pay for things that will make a difference. Possibilities include more hours in the school day or more days in the year. More tutoring and other individualized efforts, in person or online. Connecting students from lower-income families with the kinds of internet access their wealthier peers take for granted. Improving conditions in schools with better ventilation, more room and access to protective gear.

The Centers for Disease Control is now recommending that, with proper precautions, schools should be reopening. But those precautions will be expensive and, the agency says, must include efforts to stem the flow of the virus throughout the rest of the community by, for example, continuing to limit people gathering in restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms. Actions that will have economic ramifications of their own that should mean increased state expenditures to compensate for.

It means the state must pay for these emergency catch-up measures. Which, given that the Legislature has access to $1 billion or more in reserves, should not be a problem.

Gov. Spencer Cox and leaders of the Legislature have already pledged more money for the state’s underfunded schools. The governor’s budget would put an additional $611 million into public education. The Legislature began the year with a boost of $400 million.

Good, but only as measured against the need for normal times. Which these aren’t.

The Salt Lake City School District closed in-person classes for months. Other individual schools were shut down for shorter, sometimes recurring, periods. Some families just didn’t feel it was safe to go to school.

Connections to school communities and continuity of learning were lost when parents decided that whatever route their school took — in-person, remote or hybrid — their students would do better another way. Families took advantage of Utah’s permissive school transfer rules to move to other schools, other districts, to charter, private, sometimes online, schools.

The gap between the haves and the have-nots sharply increased. Online learning opportunities were out of reach for many families, because they didn’t have modern internet access or because the parents did not have the kind of jobs that allowed them to stay home and monitor their children. Children who relied on school lunches and breakfasts went hungry.

Attendance fell. Grades plummeted. Elementary-age students lost crucial time when the most basic skills of literacy should be formed. Older students, in too many cases, found the normal pains of adolescence magnified. Though a new state report indicates that Utahns didn’t see the kind of emotional suffering that was feared, there remain justified concerns about increased levels of depression and suicide.

Whatever decision a district, a school or a family made, whether it was based on science, politics, money or just plain fear, doesn’t really matter anymore.

As always, money spent on education is not a cost. It is an investment. And Utah has both the need and the means to boost that investment greatly this year.

If you agree — or if you don’t — contact your state legislators and let them know. A guide on how to participate in the legislative process is here.