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Salt Lake Virtual Elementary might close, catching parents by surprise

Salt Lake Virtual Elementary Principal Kenneth Limb in his office at Parkview Elementary in Salt Lake City, May 8, 2023. Behind Limb on his bookshelf is a stuffed fox, the virtual school’s mascot.
Martha Harris
Salt Lake Virtual Elementary Principal Kenneth Limb in his office at Parkview Elementary in Salt Lake City, May 8, 2023. Behind Limb on his bookshelf is a stuffed fox, the virtual school’s mascot.

After being open for just two years, the Salt Lake City School District is deciding whether to close its virtual elementary school. The school was created as a pilot program, but some parents said that wasn’t clear when they enrolled their children. Now they feel blindsided.

The program started in 2021. As students began to return to in-person classes, the district announced that it would open Salt Lake Virtual Elementary for students and families who preferred to keep learning online. Unlike some virtual schools, classes are synchronous, meaning students and teachers are interacting online together in real time. There’s also an optional “in-person learning day” once a month.

The district used federal COVID relief funds to cover the program.

“The timeline was coming up for those funds to run out,” said district spokesperson Yándary Chatwin. “And so it was time to take a look and see if this was something that made sense for us to continue or if there were alternatives we should be looking at.”.

Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Tiffany Hall and Executive Director of Human Resource Services Logan Hall were both tasked with studying what to do about the virtual school and in March presented four options to the board.

Enrollment decreased from 259 in October 2022 to 87 in March 2023, and Logan Hall said that number is projected to keep declining. Fewer students mean it would be expensive to continue operating the school as is, and based on projected enrollment numbers, the district would not be able to afford a teacher for each grade level, like it does now.

The school’s principal Kenneth Limb was not surprised enrollment numbers have fallen, but was surprised by how drastically they declined. He thinks many students left because they saw their peers going back to school in person and wanted to be with their friends.

During the Salt Lake City school board’s May 2 meeting, the two district employees recommended the school close after this school year, based on funding, attendance data, academic achievement data, parent surveys and teacher focus groups. Logan Hall said the district should provide information and options to students to attend a virtual school somewhere else in the state.

Sylvia Salazar, whose son is in kindergarten at Salt Lake Virtual Elementary, saw lots of benefits to virtual education. Her son is introverted and didn’t feel comfortable going to school in person, plus the virtual school was more diverse than his neighborhood school.

“His teacher, for example, also speaks Spanish, and so that's been just a nice thing that he's been able to relate to her with,” Salazar said.

According to Fall 2022 enrollment data, 35 out of the 59 students enrolled in October were Hispanic and only 14 were white.

While the school was a pilot project from the beginning, Salazar felt that wasn’t clearly communicated to parents, and said she did not know that until discussions about closing the school started.

“I felt a little blindsided because of the very short notice,” Salazar said. “It just is very frustrating.”

Salazar is exploring other options for next year if Salt Lake Virtual Elementary closes, but right now she is unsure what the future will look like.

“I don't want to throw him into a situation that he doesn't want and have him end up despising school, or just having a negative experience with that,” Salazar said.

Natasha Jensen enrolled her son in the school when it first started in 2021 partly because of past experiences with bullying. Like Salazar, Jensen felt the school was more inclusive of students of color than her son’s old school. She also said she did not realize it was a pilot program.

Jensen has been touring schools but isn’t sure where her son will be going next year.

Limb said he’s been trying to help parents understand what’s going on and what their options are.

“I feel strongly that it [Salt Lake Virtual Elementary] has served those students really well. And we have data that shows that,” Limb said. “I’ve been proud to be a part of this school.”

The board will have two more opportunities for public comment and may take a deciding vote on the issue in June.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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