SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City School District Interim Superintendent Larry Madden, perhaps more than most, understands the need for human connection.

It’s why Madden, who earned a degree in geology and worked in oil exploration in the Mountain West early on in his professional career, became a junior high science teacher.

“I was just more interested in doing something that involved people,” he said.

Madden, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, relocated from Denver to Utah to teach school.

“We moved to Salt Lake only because my wife’s brother was here. Then, I just kind of grew into it. I was really lucky. I found some great mentors along the way, or they found me. I don’t know how it worked. ... Some of those people were really huge, huge factors in my embracing the work, trying to do it well and finding the joy in it.”

Educators have an opportunity to “change the trajectory” of students’ lives for the positive, Madden said.

“I’m still friends with students that are way into adulthood now that I met along the way. It makes me feel pretty good. It’s not like I’ve done anything amazing, it’s just human interactions and trying to help people navigate what can be a really, really hard world for some kids,” he said.

Those connections are one compelling reason that Salt Lake students need to eventually return to the classrooms for in-person learning, but not until it’s safe, he said.

For now, the Salt Lake students will start the school year solely via distance learning. Educators will teach “live” with students using videoconferencing technologies. Students will learn online at the same time and older student will self-direct some of their learning.

School was scheduled to start on Sept. 8, but that plan was scuttled after hurricane-force winds blasted northern Utah resulting in damage to vehicles and structures, thousands of uprooted trees and lingering power outages.

Even though most Salt Lake schools had power by the end of the week, tens of thousands of households did not, which meant students could not participate in lessons.

After calling off school three days in a row, Madden announced on Thursday that school would resume on Monday.

Madden said administrators will regularly review COVID-19 infection rates prior to each grading period to determine if a shift to hybrid instruction or full-time in-person learning is feasible.

“We’ll talk about where we are. We’ll also have some data to look at it relative to how it’s gone in other school districts. And then, we’ll make the decision again for the next grading period,” he said.

“Ideally, we get kids back at schools. I think that’s where we all want to be but we also want to do it safely.” — Larry Madden, interim superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District

The district has taken a methodical approach to its return-to-school plan, which was developed while the community was still at an orange, or moderate restriction phase of COVID-19 risk.

After the decision was made to begin the school year with distance learning, the start of the school year was pushed back by two weeks to give teachers more time to prepare lessons on online platforms, meet with students and their parents, distribute laptops and teach families how to use them.

But in a year where the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life across the entire planet, Madden said he wasn’t surprised when it also threw a wrench into the school district’s opening day plans.

Madden said the storm and aftermath were “unfortunate,” prolonging an already long wait for school to resume after last spring’s sudden pivot to online learning when in-person instruction was halted statewide due to the pandemic.

To further complicate matters, laptops for students that were ordered months ago did not arrive by the scheduled start of the school year due to supply chain issues.

“We’re gonna have lots of computers in a very short time. And in the meantime, we can fill the gap with desktops and laptops we have,” Madden said.

Once the school year starts in earnest, the school district has a full plate of other business to attend to, and Madden, who plans to retire at the end of the school year after 29-plus years with the district as a teacher, principal and district-level administrator, wants the next superintendent to take over a school district that is in good stead.

Madden started on July 1, in the middle of the pandemic and as former Superintendent Lexi Cunningham’s tenure ended. She resigned in late January amid conflict with the board and divisions among board members themselves, but served until the end of the school year. Cunningham is now executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association.

The school board search for a new superintendent is underway, but Madden said he has no plans to apply for the job.

He will instead wrap up his career guiding the district through what portends to be an unprecedented school year between dealing with the impacts of COVID-19, which include the economic downturn, managing a shrinking school enrollment, a nationwide racial reckoning and the possibility there could be three new members on the school board come January.

“Yeah, it’s been a little bit intense,” Madden said. He likens it to handing car keys to someone who does not know how to drive and they have to figure it out on the fly.

“Except in my case, I’m in a race car and it’s just a blur out the window. I’m just trying to do the best I can to think about people first because schools are, you know, they’re people,” he said.

The pandemic has been “such an uncomfortable and scary situation for a lot of people. We don’t know everybody’s life outside of school, just trying to be sensitive to the needs of the other humans that we’re around,” Madden said.

Schools are places of learning and discovery but educators also need to be attuned to students’ social-emotional needs. When he was principal at Bryant Middle School, teachers there worked hard to host online “socials” for students last spring so they could connect with one another or play games, he said.

“We have to get students’ minds in a comfortable place so that they’re not worried about the world so that they can learn.’ — Larry Madden, Salt Lake City School District interim superintendent

Asked why he considered becoming an interim superintendent in the middle of a pandemic with no intentions of seeking the job, Madden laughed softly and replied, “I don’t know. I guess I wanted to do it for my friends. I do care about what happens in the district because I think we have such an interesting student population, such an interesting diversity and families. It just seems always to me like a place of opportunity. If I could help in that transition, I would be interested in doing that as a kind of a farewell.”

While the search for the next superintendent is the purview of the school board, Madden said he wants to provide input because it matters to him that the next superintendent “cares about the school district and has a positive vision moving forward.”

Take the issue of the district’s declining enrollment, which was just under 23,000 last year and the latest head count was around 20,500, although a more accurate number likely won’t be available for a few weeks. Most state school funding formulas are based on student counts so a shrinking student population poses challenges.

In many Utah school districts, declining enrollment often results in school closures.

Another option, Madden said, is to innovate.

“What can we do differently? Maybe there are things we can do within our schools that we have now that actually draw kids into the district. I think that’s very possible if we’re creative and we think in big ways about that stuff.”

Madden knows a bit about that. He founded and served as principal of the Salt Lake Center for Science Education, a STEM-focused public charter school in Rose Park. The school is chartered by the Salt Lake City School District and partners with University of Utah. 

Madden said he also expects that as public schools endure and emerge from the global pandemic that education will fundamentally change.

“At the end of it, we’re gonna know some stuff that we didn’t know. We’re gonna learn some things about education. Education is a hard thing to change. It’s a big, heavy system. But a disruption like this allows us to actually rethink some things. Maybe we come out of this with some different approaches or different ideas that we can really benefit from long term.”

Interim Superintendent Larry Madden works in his office at the Salt Lake City School District office in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News