SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake elementary school students could return to school as early as the week of Jan. 25 under a proposal adopted by the school board late Tuesday night.

Older elementary students would return to school in a phased-in approach in successive weeks.

Under the proposal approved on a split vote, students pre-kindergarten through first grade would return the week of Jan. 25; grades 2 and 3 would return the week of Feb. 1 and grades 4-6 would return the week of Feb. 8.

Interim Superintendent Larry Madden said preliminary health department data indicates that the risk for elementary students in remote learning is not statistically different from other students in the county that are learning in person.

The plans also envisions “high-quality remote instruction for students who continue online.”

The plan presented by Madden also contemplates that the board review data and guidelines in January “to determine when secondary schools will return.” The motion adopted by the board did not contemplate that part of the proposal.

As for high schoolers, “It appears from this preliminary health department data that the risk for high school students in remote learning is statistically lower than for other students in the county that are learning in person,” Madden said.

Board member Sam Hanson urged the board to consider a later start date and shared concerns of elementary school principals.

“They’re terrified, not because they’re terrified that they’re going to get the virus and die, but they’re terrified that they can’t keep their building staffed,” Hanson said.

Madden said the health authorities are also calculating differences in risk between teachers teaching in person and those teaching virtually but that data is not currently available.

But other board members spoke in support of the proposal, saying Madden’s proposal was thoughtful and based on data.

“For us as a board, we just need to keep remembering that the day-to-day operations of this district is not our responsibility,” said board member Kristi Swett said. “If he’s asking us to consider this recommendation, then I think we seriously need to consider this recommendation.”

Board President Melissa Ford said the district’s youngest students are most at-risk educationally “not because of the work of their teachers, which is phenomenal, but because of the nature of learning for the youngest learners.”

Board member Mike Nemelka urged board Hanson to advance a motion. Hanson said he wanted to find middle ground, possibly resuming in-person learning later in the school year.

“You’re wasting everybody’s time. I’m beginning to think after two years on this damn board half of you don’t believe in the kids themselves. I think you actually hate them,” Nemelka said.

Salt Lake District was the only district to start the school year in remote learning and to remain in that instructional mode. Nemelka has long advocated for a return to in-person instruction.

Earlier in the day, a group of parents, students, residents, and advocates from Salt Lake’s west side released a letter to the school board and Madden urging the board to delay the decision to return to school in person until after the holiday season.

“We believe that given the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still too unsafe for our community to risk returning to any in-person classes. We value education and each of us believes that we should return to in-person instruction as soon as it is safe to do so. Now is not that time,” the letter said in part.

The experience of Canyon School District’s Corner Canyon High School is a cautionary tale, the letter describing it as “devastating” to the local community. The letter quotes a New York Times story published Oct. 18 that references the hospitalization of Corner Canyon teacher Charri Jensen, who contracted COVID-19 and had to placed on a ventilator.

“When the board finally closed the school temporarily, 77 students and staff members ... had tested positive,” the article states.

The letter notes that these events occurred in a community that has far more resources than Glendale and the west side. “To follow the path of Corner Canyons High School would be even more devastating in Glendale,” it states.

Dr. Carl Whittaker, a family physician, said patrons are “only asking for a choice. We are not forcing anyone who does not feel comfortable to return to school, remain online if you wish. But let those of us who choose to follow the science return to school.”

But Laura Hamilton, a Salt Lake District educator, urged the board to keep the school district on remote learning. For her students, it is working well, she said.

“Right now, my classes ahead of where we would typically be, and my attendance is better than it has been in previous years. Any disruption to our remote routines would only slow our progress and interfere with my students’ learning, she said.

A return to in-person learning would mean her attention would have to shift from students’ academic progress to cleaning, social distancing, hand washing and sanitizing protocols. “The focus would no longer be on learning for the good of students, families, teachers, or school personnel and our whole community. I ask the board to do the right thing by keeping us learning and teaching remotely,” she said.

But others urged the board to adopt a plan to return students to the classroom.

Nate Fotheringham, a father of three, said “a vote in favor of this plan is not a vote against remote learning. Remote learning will still be available to those who prefer it.”

Caitlin Pearson, a mother of three children in Salt Lake schools, asked the board to consider distance learning’s impact on students’ mental, physical and emotional health and lasting academic impacts.

“All three of our schools children log on every day. They complete all their work and we, along with their teachers, are killing ourselves to make that happen. However, learning, can’t happen like this. Getting the work done alone is not enough. Our children used to love school. However, now the enthusiasm and excitement is gone,” she said.