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Using teacher bonus to push Salt Lake City to open its classrooms ‘a mistake,’ Cox says

Gov.-elect, House speaker ultimately agreed on path to give bonus to all teachers, reopen schools safely

dnstock, East High School
East High School in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In a series of tweets Saturday, Gov.-elect Spencer Cox revealed that although he had publicly pushed for the Salt Lake City School District to resume in-person learning, he felt it was a mistake to use a teacher stipend as a means to that end.

Cox referred to a proposal approved by legislative leaders earlier this week to give each K-12 teacher a $1,500 bonus for their hard work during the pandemic.

But the stipend would only be given to teachers offering in-person learning or some combination of in-person and virtual learning before Jan. 19, 2021, which presumably meant teachers in Salt Lake City would not receive the bonus, according to an amendment by House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.

The Salt Lake district has conducted school by remote learning since the start of the school year, the only district in Utah to select that option. However, some students have received in-person services such as English language instruction and special education.

Cox, in the tweets, said he shared his thoughts and frustrations with Wilson and Wilson shared his logic and feelings with him.

“But here’s the thing, Speaker Brad Wilson is an incredible public servant. He isn’t a bomb thrower and is always willing to work for best outcomes. I knew he wouldn’t make this decision for sport. And so I waited until passions could die down and we could talk. And we did,” Cox wrote.

“Ultimately we came to an understanding and commitment to work to get that money to all teachers and find a way to safely open schools,” he tweeted.

On Friday evening, the school district issued an announcement quoting Wilson that said if the school board approves a timeline to resume in-person learning during its Jan. 5 meeting, “all teachers and school staff, including those in the Salt Lake City School District, will be able to take advantage of the one-time stipend that is part of that funding package, and what’s even more exciting is that kids will be back in the classroom where they learn best.”

Wilson referred to an announcement by Interim Superintendent Larry Madden that he will propose to the Salt Lake City Board of Education an in-person learning option for secondary students (middle school and high school) at its meeting Jan. 5.

The school board voted in November to resume in-school instruction for elementary school students in January. The school district will also continue to offer online instruction to families that prefer that option.

The announcement came after what a school district press release described as “productive conversations” between Wilson and district officials.

Wilson continued, “I am very encouraged by the discussions this week and think the timeline laid out balances student and educator needs. Utah students and teachers across the state have shown incredible resiliency this past year as they’ve faced the challenges of 2020 head on. I want to commend Salt Lake City educators and staff for the many ways they’ve supported their students and school communities throughout the pandemic.”

Wilson noted the Legislature’s demonstrated support for students and educators this week with “an unprecedented $400 million investment of new education funding, much of which will flow directly to Salt Lake City School District.”

Cox applauded the announcement of the agreement to open schools safely.

“And while the stipend was a catalyst for discussion, the biggest driver was that teachers will be vaccinated soon,” he said.

Cox said that over the past few weeks, Utah officials worked hard to make sure teachers will be part of the first wave of COVID-19 vaccinations statewide. “But the catalyst for that came out of a conversation I had with ... yep ... Speaker Wilson and majority leadership. They care deeply about teachers and deserve credit,” he wrote.

Madden said Salt Lake educators and frontline school employees are scheduled to receive vaccines Jan. 8 and 9, which made him feel comfortable recommending to the board an in-person learning option for the district’s middle school and high school students starting Feb. 8.

“This timeline provides our secondary educators enough time to receive both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. The second dose will be administered on Jan. 29 and 30, which means a start date of Feb. 8 gives our educators and employees the additional seven days needed for the vaccine to reach its full efficacy. Coupled with COVID precautions inside our buildings to keep our students safe during in-person learning, the vaccine provides us one more tool to provide a quality education to our students, whether in person or online,” Madden said in a statement.

Madden said it has always been the school board’s intent for students to return to in-person learning but wanted to make decisions guided by data, medical science and public health recommendations. “That’s why they voted in November to begin offering an in-person learning option for elementary school students starting the week of Jan. 25, because the latest COVID data showed us it made sense to do so,” Madden said.

The school district has been under mounting pressure to reopen schools, both from lawmakers and a group of Salt Lake parents who filed a civil rights lawsuit this past week demanding the option of in-person learning for their children.

Reports that some 4,000 middle schoolers and high schoolers received at least one F grade or incomplete grade in the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year stirred further concern.