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Salt Lake parents, students protest for ‘equal opportunities’ as neighboring districts when schools reopen

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bell hooks, known for her book “Ain’t I A Women,” died at the age of 69

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SALT LAKE CITY — Destiny Havili is desperate to play her last season of high school volleyball.

And while she understands that the pandemic that shut her school down in the spring is still ravaging her community, she doesn’t understand why her friends living just a couple of miles away get to go to school and play sports and she might not get to do either.

In fact, she said she’s just as anxious to get back in the classroom as she is to get back on the court.

“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster, honestly,” said the East High senior, one of about 150 parents and students who protested the Salt Lake City School District’s announcement that it will not hold in person classes or allow athletic competition this fall. “With this online school, I feel like no one has been able to learn anything. I took college classes in the spring, and it was very stressful.”

She said it wasn’t just the assignments that were online, all conversations and discussions were electronic as well.

“It wasn’t very much of a learning experience because everything was online,” she said. “All the answers were online, and the teachers just said, if we couldn’t find it, just look it up. It wasn’t very helpful.”

The protest came just days after the district announced it couldn’t hold classes this fall as the city is still in the state’s second-most serious risk phase, orange, while the rest of the county, and most of the state is in yellow, or low-risk phase, a designation that allows in-person school and competition with precautions.

The decision isn’t something the district says it can change unless the city or state governments decide to either change the restrictions under an orange designation or move the city to yellow. The dilemma faced by the district was one of the items discussed during a meeting with Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders on Wednesday. Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, sympathized with the parents’ frustration, and said he expects an announcement soon from the governor about the Salt Lake City School District.

“For me, I think it’s really important that ... the school districts have the same ability to either have all the kids go to school or not have any kids go to school,” Adams said. “The orange designation in Salt Lake City, which doesn’t allow any school attendance, is causing a problem both in school attendance and in sports.”

The Senate president said he and state House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, are in agreement that the problem needs to be fixed. He said options include revising the definition of the orange risk level to allow students back in classrooms and on playing fields, or pushing Salt Lake City to yellow.

“We’re looking at all those and the governor will probably announce that this week,” Adams said, noting legislation passed in a recent special session gives Herbert the final say in the risk designations. “I think everything’s on the table. I think we’re trying to look at all different options.”

The parents said their frustration stems from knowing every other school in the state will offer some in-person classes, as well as activities, while their students will have none of those options. At the protest, both parents and students spoke with the underlying theme being that they want the same opportunities their friends and relatives around the county and state have.

“I have three in high school still,” said Mele Tausinga, who helped organize the protest where nearly everyone wore masks. “I just wish (leaders) understood that it’s more than just these kids risking their health to go to school. It’s their future. These kids cannot get the same opportunities at home that they’re getting at school.”

She and the other parents who organized the protest, which took place on the steps of the Salt Lake School District office, said there are a long list of reasons that children need to attend a physical school, including health and safety, lack of access to technology, and parents who feel unqualified to supervise online education.

“We don’t have the luxury of where the mom is home and she has an education and she can give that help to her kids,” said Tausinga, who has two children who’ve earned college scholarships through athletics. “These parents are working two and three jobs, and they cannot just drop all of that and stay home and figure out how to home-school all these kids. The reality is these kids are not going to stay home and sit in front of a laptop for seven hours a day.”

Sabreena Elggren has a second grader and a sophomore in the Salt Lake District, and said she came to the protest on behalf of parents whose children will be left behind without traditional school classes. She said the district has a large population of immigrant and refugee families who work multiple jobs and may not have the time or the technology or language skills to supervise school for their children.

“What’s going to happen to all of these kids who are left home alone?” she said. “All these parents are here for so many reasons. You could really write a book on all the reasons these parents feel it is important for their kids to go to school. ... I’m lucky to be a stay-at-home mom ... but my child is taking honors chemistry and Spanish, and I can’t teach her those things.”

Raina Williams has four children in elementary, middle school and high school, and she said there were dozens of programs to support vulnerable families, including homeless or new immigrant families, but once the schools shut down, the only thing officials worried about was food.

“I feel like we have taken away so many things from them,” she said of the district’s children. “And we’re pretending like the online learning option works. It does not work. It might work for a small segment, but the more at-risk population that we need to be having as a priority, it’s not working and no one’s talking about that.”

Williams said that going to an online only option “takes away any support they have.”

“We absolutely love our neighborhood schools,” she said, rattling off the programs parents support that create a safety net for immigrant, refugee, poor and homeless children. “And then (the schools close), and they’re gone? They don’t have these needs anymore? I know we’ve done all we can with meals for them, but there are so many other needs that people are not talking about.”

Two of the organizers said officials believe at least 20% of the district’s students didn’t log on for a single class after in-person classes were shut down in March. One woman said nearly half of the students told district officials they do not have access to a laptop or computer at home. Instead of leaving these students and families to fend for themselves, the women suggested teaching them how to take precautions against the spread of COVID-19.

“Why can’t we teach them how to take care of themselves?” Tausinga asked. “How come the other schools, the other kids get these opportunities? ... We’re just asking for the same opportunity that our brothers and sisters have at a quality education and opportunities. We probably need it more than our schools next door.”

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche