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In 2021, schools became a battleground for Utah’s hot button issues

A photo of elementary students wearing protective face masks and a little girl disinfecting her hands in the classroom.
Drazen Zigic
Debates about mask mandates in schools were just one way that educational settings became the front lines for political divisions in 2021.

In 2021, schools became a battleground for some of the country's most divisive issues. KUER education reporter Jon Reed joined All Things Considered host Caroline Ballard to recap how Utah approached education this year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: I think many people hoped that this year would look a little more like a return to normal for schools. That did not quite happen. Take us through the year in COVID.

Jon Reed: If you can think back to last summer, things were looking pretty good. It seemed like cases were going down. But then delta came, and that led to this whole new surge just before the school year started. At the same time, schools were really limited in what they could do. The state Legislature had essentially prevented schools from issuing mask mandates. And overall, just the restrictions in place were much more relaxed than they were the prior year.

For some people that was great. They were happy to be back in school. They didn't have to wear a mask. In that way, things felt a little bit more normal. But then for others, there was a real concern about going back to school — particularly parents with high risk kids. One family I spoke to had made this very difficult decision to allow their older kids to go back to school but kept their younger kids home. They just had to set up all these kinds of elaborate routines to sanitize and clean. And they just felt it was on them to do that and homeschool because schools were so limited in what they could do

CB: In the fall of 2020, Utah's public schools saw an overall decrease in enrollment for the first time in two decades. What happened to those kids, and did they end up coming back in 2021?

JR: There was a lot of shuffling around last year. More kids were getting homeschooled. There was this very concerning drop in enrollment for kindergartners. And then, some kids had just disappeared. Schools didn't really know where they had gone — if they had moved, if they were working. And then this year, the question was whether that was going to happen again. It seems like the situation hasn't totally resolved, but basically, the headline from the state school board was that kids by and large returned to public schools this year.

CB: How are all of these disruptions impacting learning for students?

JR: So first, there's been an exponential increase in requests for help with mental health. That's been a top concern for educators that I've spoken to. The other thing, of course, is this concern over learning loss that all these disruptions and the chaos during the pandemic has impacted student progress. There's a recent report from the state school board which found that in some cases, achievement last year was more than two times worse than what educators saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. So all of that is just really putting a lot more strain on teachers and staff. A lot of districts don't have full time counselors in every school, so they can't always get to every student. Schools are using some federal COVID relief funds to hire additional support staff, but it's one-time money that is eventually going to run out.

CB: Another major story this year was the continued battle playing out over how schools address racism and achievement gaps among students. And at the center of that was this debate around critical race theory, or CRT. How did Utah address this?

JR: State lawmakers responding to this national movement and conversation and some outspoken parents here — they issued a resolution which basically said we shouldn't be talking about certain concepts they associate with CRT in schools. That led the state school board to issue a rule about how teachers talk about race and related topics in the classroom. This has obviously been a national debate, and it's branched out into criticism over things like social and emotional learning and efforts to remove books from school libraries.

Then at the same time, in Utah, we've seen lots of evidence that racism and bullying remain persistent problems in schools. The biggest was a huge Department of Justice report that came out in October. The DOJ had spent several years investigating the Davis School District and found complaints about racial harassment often were ignored or mishandled. Then, shortly after that report was released, a young student died by suicide, and her mother said that was due largely to the bullying she received for being Black and autistic.

CB: So where do schools go from here? What does 2022 look like it could bring about?

JR: I think these questions over racism and bullying remain a big problem and something that schools are going to have to confront or will confront. And there's still this fundamental tension in what many see as the solutions are the very things people are calling CRT and objecting to. Then as for COVID, health experts expect omicron, this new variant, to lead to more school-related cases. They're recommending masking up even if it's not required and closely watching for symptoms. So schools will have to continue working through that while trying to limit disruptions as much as possible and helping students stay on track.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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