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Salt Lake City School District Approves Reopening Plan, Contingent On Teacher Vaccinations

A photo of students at a protest outside East High School.
Sonja Hutson
Students and parents rallied outside East High School last month, urging the Salt Lake City School District to reopen schools.

Following a more than six hour meeting Tuesday night, the Salt Lake City School Board voted to bring middle and high school students back to the classroom. The plan, though, does not yet have a specific date set and is contingent on when teachers and school staff are able to receive two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The district had been the only one in the state to remain fully online through the 2020-2021 school year, but has faced mounting pressure from parents and state officials to reopen schools.

Under the proposal, secondary schools will offer a mostly in-person schedule, with one day to allow teachers to work with students who remain online or who need additional support. Families who want their students to continue online will still have that option. Students will also be able to take some classes in person and others remotely.

A separate plan to reopen elementary schools starting Jan. 25 was approved in November, but the board voted to reconsider the start time in another meeting next week.

Interim Superintendent Larry Madden said the district considered reopening elementary schools since data revealed COVID-19 was not spreading there as much as it was at the secondary level. And now that teachers and school staff are getting closer to receiving their first doses of the vaccine — though the expected start time has been delayed — he said he is more comfortable reopening all schools in the district.

“I think with the vaccine and with meticulous masking, we can create an environment that is pretty safe,” Madden said.

He had originally planned to reopen middle and high schools Feb. 8, which, based on early estimates of the state’s vaccine plan, provided enough time for teachers to receive both doses of the vaccine. But as the state’s rollout has been slower than health officials hoped, teachers aren’t expected to receive the vaccine until late January at the earliest — almost a month after they were initially eligible.

Beyond the current health conditions, the district’s plan was motivated in part by student performance and pressure from the state legislature. A Salt Lake Tribune analysis found the number of secondary students who failed every first-quarter class increased by 600% this year compared to last.

State lawmakers cited the drop as a key reason for leaving the district out of a plan to offer $1,500 bonuses to public school teachers, though only in districts that were open for in-person classes.

“They would like the Salt Lake City school district to offer an in-person option,” board president Melissa Ford said in the meeting. Not opening schools, “will cost us money. It will potentially make things more difficult for us.”

Lawmakers and the district later came to a compromise, allowing Salt Lake teachers to receive the bonus if the district opens in early February. It’s not clear yet if delaying the agreed upon start date, Feb. 8, could affect the bonuses.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Utah house of Representatives said the district will only receive the bonuses if it opens Feb. 8.

Republican House Speaker Brad WIlson, who led the negotiations with the district, said in a statement he was disappointed by the board’s position, “who seem ready to accept their students falling significantly behind their counterparts in surrounding districts.”

“Throughout the state, other districts have implemented precautions that allow students to benefit from in-person instruction while protecting teachers and staff,” the statement said.

“As with every other district in the state, the Salt Lake City School District has the ability to implement in-person learning and can no longer exclude their students from receiving quality, in-person instruction,” Wilson continued. “I hope the board members who are charged with caring for their students will choose to start in-classroom instruction by Feb. 8 so Salt Lake City teachers can receive their stipend and their students can get back to school.”

Updated: January 7, 2021 at 9:36 AM MST
This story was updated to reflect comments from the Utah House of Representatives.
Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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