Tribune Editorial: Utah schools need to open. The Legislature isn’t helping.

Utah’s history of treating education as a culture war wedge issue is not helping students get back to class in the face of the pandemic.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students return to Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Logically, it is clear that Utah’s schools should be fully open, five days a week, for all but the most medically vulnerable students and teachers. The learning that is being lost may never fully be made up, and the emotional strain of this prolonged isolation on children and their families is immense.

But the world doesn’t run on logic, especially where our children are concerned. It runs on emotions, leadership and trust. When it comes to education in Utah, there are lots of emotions, not much leadership and there is precious little trust.

In the fog of pandemic, it is not surprising that many — teachers, parents, students, schools boards, the governor, the Legislature — have been looking out for their own interests. Even if it ain’t exactly clear what those are.

But it is the Legislature that holds the pursestrings and makes the policy. And, for many lawmakers, education is less a public institution than a culture wars wedge issue.

Lawmakers often can’t seem to mention public schools unless it is to criticize, undermine or defund them, or to score political points by attacking the schools for engaging in social engineering or, well, not engaging in social engineering.


Sex education

Lawmakers have consistently resisted efforts to install comprehensive sex education in Utah schools. This immature squeamishness does nothing to encourage sexual responsibility and leaves our young people unprepared for the challenges and urges they will naturally experience.

One possible step in the right direction in the current session is a bill by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss that would require the Utah State Board of Education to design a curriculum that would explain the meaning of consent, and the lack thereof, in sexual and other situations, explain that consent is not owed to anyone and give information on how deal with the effects of sexual assault. A first draft of that bill was, predictably, killed in committee, but has been revived. It should become law.

Transgender rights

A bill flying through the Legislature, as well as the legislatures of several other states, would ban transgender females from participating in girls sports in public schools. This is a hurtful solution in search of a nonexistent problem. The Utah High School Activities Association, following the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee, have developed good rules for dealing with the issue, even as there are no reported cases of trans girls crashing through the gender barrier and denying other female athletes their opportunities.

Gov. Spencer Cox rightly said Thursday that he would not sign the measure — House Bill 302 — in its current form. He understands the cruel message it would carry to transgender youth, a group already carrying more than its share of depression and suicide.

School funding

A bill that would tell schools they don’t have to use money earmarked for special needs students just to meet the needs of those students has passed a Senate committee. Supporters of Senate Bill 175 make no secret of the fact that this is a bill sought by a particular charter school — one that got in trouble with state auditors for not properly tracking its special education funding — even as representatives of the state school board and local school districts object to its potential to further dilute an already insufficient funding stream.

This follows a churlish move by legislative leaders to offer $1,500 bonuses to teachers — but only if their schools were in in-person session, something over which the teachers have no say.

The health situation in Utah schools, even with no pandemics, suffers from our longstanding policy of stacking ‘em deep and teaching ‘em cheap, with too few nurses or counselors and sometimes hardly any room to turn around. It is hardly surprising, then, that many teachers, parents and students are not eager to return to school full time, and some school boards and administrators are reluctant to call them back, even as they acknowledge the limitations of remote learning.

These feelings survive despite growing scientific evidence that schools have not been the sort of superspreader locations that they were reasonably feared to be.

Younger children, to our great relief, seem particularly resistant to the coronavirus, both in terms of becoming ill and transmitting the disease to their older relatives.

In secondary schools, evidence suggests that students and their families are much more likely to contract the disease from places other than school, including typical teenage-heavy spots as shopping centers and restaurants, or just hanging out at each others’ homes.

In other words, if schools stick to such basic hygiene practices as wearing masks, keeping clean and engaging in as much physical distancing as is practical, students and teachers are likely safer at school than just about anywhere else they might go.

One thing we should all take from this experience is that teachers are really important, and that dreams of replacing them with computers have been exposed as, well, flawed.

All of us, members of the Legislature particularly, should be working with schools and teachers, not against them, to make the necessary return to schools not only be safe, but feel that way.