SALT LAKE CITY — The 2020 presidential election notwithstanding, a recent statewide survey of Utahns says education and the teacher shortage are their top priorities.

And a growing number of Utahns are willing to invest more in education to support teachers, according to the results of a new survey commissioned by Envision Utah.

Nine out of 10 surveyed said it’s important to provide better support for teachers, up from 76% in 2016.

Meanwhile, 78% of Utahns surveyed recently said they were willing to pay more to support education, compared to 71% a year ago and 51% in 2016.

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Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews said the survey results are heartening because Utahns continue to consider education as a top priority and those surveyed indicate that they’re willing to pay more in taxes to boost education funding.

“That support has really grown. As we go into our next legislative session, recognizing that our taxpayers are willing to support that increased investments, our state Legislature also must recognize that,” she said.

Matthews said it is imperative that the teacher shortage receive more attention and more resources.

“The teacher shortage, or exodus as we call it, it was a major concern prior to the pandemic. I really fear that it might soon reach some crisis levels unless there’s more done to support teachers. We’ve got to be looking out for our teachers and our adults in our schools with things like addressing health and safety concerns and reducing class sizes,” she said.

Moreover, teachers need more autonomy and the education system needs to de-emphasize high-stakes testing.

“Of course, it’s really looking at increased salaries. It’s no wonder that people are going to other areas when when the demands have so increased and the salaries have not,” Matthews said.

Lighthouse Research surveyed 403 Utahns statewide for Envision Utah, a nonprofit organization “that engages Utahns in collaborative, bottom-up decision-making,” according to its website.

The survey, conducted by telephone and online the last half of September, has a margin of error of plus or minus 5%.

The survey asked participants to rate the importance of certain current topics or issues.

The presidential election came out on top, with public education, the teacher shortage, the COVID-19 pandemic and state elections rounding out the top five. The following six were water resources, economic downturn, cost of housing, air pollution, climate change and earthquakes.

The survey results also indicate that a majority of Utahns believe the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems in education such as the teacher shortage.

In the survey, 75% said they expect this school year to be “much worse” to “somewhat worse” than the previous year. And 37% “strongly agree” the pandemic has set back children’s learning.

However, 83% said teachers have done “somewhat well” to “very well” adapting to meet students’ needs with 39% saying teachers have done “very well.” Of those surveyed, 41% said they have school-age children at home.

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State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said she appreciates that the Utahns surveyed “are taking a long view of education based on what they’ve experienced during a pandemic that teachers matter and good teachers matter and providing students the support they need to get a quality education is a key factor in the success of our state.”

The survey also asked how well schools have addressed health risks related to the pandemic: 37% said it had been handled “somewhat well” while 29% said it has been handled “very well.”

Dickson said schools “have done a really great job of ensuring that schools are safe places, both physically and emotionally. Students have missed each other. They’ve missed their teachers. We’re getting reports that there’s a greater emphasis on the social-emotional needs of our students. We’ve underestimated that in the past, for sure.”

Meanwhile, 11% of those surveyed said pandemic-related school safety had been handled “very poorly” while 15% said it has been addressed “somewhat poorly.”

Dickson said schools have implemented multiple measures to support public health and safety during the pandemic. “It’s that ecosystem outside of school that continues to be a challenge,” she said.

Considering the challenges of the pandemic, the majority of Utahns surveyed said schools were doing “somewhat well” or “very well” at providing a high-quality education.

A solid majority said the pandemic has pushed Utahns into the future of education with digital learning.

The survey also asked this open-ended question about online learning: “What words, thoughts, or phrases come to your mind when you hear the phrase ‘distance learning?’” 

The responses were varied, with some focused on technology and education platforms. Others remarked on the challenges, confusion and inconvenience of remote learning. Still others homed in on education quality, calling it “ineffective” and “inadequate” while others described it as “safe” and “responsible.”

“Our children are safe. Distance learning was on its way sooner or later,” one person stated.

But others decried distance learning as “disastrous” and “terrible.”

“Terrible! It will affect our children in ways we cannot foresee yet,” one person said.

But others sounded a positive note.

“I’m really happy with it. It has been really great for us. It definitely has its challenges and struggles, but it’s better suited for one individual child instead of 30 kids for one poor teacher.”