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Utah Senate president to Salt Lake schools: ‘No more excuses’ for delaying in-person classes

Educators will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines beginning Monday

West High School in Salt Lake City is pictured in 2019.
West High School in Salt Lake City is pictured in 2019. Utah lawmakers are pressuring the Salt Lake City School District to open schools for in-person learning.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY Utah Senate President Stuart Adams on Friday called on the Salt Lake City School District to provide in-person learning options for all students “immediately.”

In a statement, Adams said K-12 educators will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines starting Monday.

“The excuses need to end at once,” he said.

Adams’ statement notes that the Salt Lake District is the only school district statewide that has not implemented in-person learning options with precautions to protect educators, staff and students.

“It is time to step up,” the Layton Republican said.

The district’s instruction has largely been delivered remotely since the start of the school year, but teachers have met in schools with small groups of students who need services such as special education or English language instruction.

Under current plans, schools will offer an in-person learning option to elementary schools on a phased-in basis starting Jan. 25.

Late Tuesday, the Salt Lake City Board of Education voted to tie the return to the classroom for students in grades 7-12 to the availability of vaccines for teachers, but the board chose no specific date. The board also did not act on a request by interim Superintendent Larry Madden that all teachers work from schools starting on Jan. 25.

Adams noted that teachers have done an “amazing job” with the resources they have been given, “but students should have the opportunity to learn in the classroom. It has been reported that in Salt Lake City School District there is a 600% increase in students failing all classes, despite teachers’ best efforts. The increased failure rate among students is proof that remote learning, while a good option for some, is not a perfect solution for all.”

Adams said schools provide more than just academics.

“K-12 students learn social skills, receive meals, exercise and have access to other support services,” he said. “Vulnerable and low-income children are particularly affected by lack of contact with classmates. Additionally, it serves as a safe place for many children while parents are working.”

Earlier, legislative leaders announced that the Utah Legislature will provide a $1,500 bonus to all school teachers for their efforts during the pandemic. But the stipend was conditioned on teachers performing a combination of in-person and remote learning.

In a statement issued earlier this week, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, also called on the district to resume an in-person instruction model so Salt Lake educators will qualify for the bonus.

“I hope the board members who are charged with caring for their students will choose to start in-classroom instruction by Feb. 8 so Salt Lake City teachers can receive their stipend and their students can get back to school,” his statement said in part.

According to two members of the Salt Lake School Board, educators said they prize their health above the bonus and prefer to return to school when it is safe to do so.

The district has been under mounting pressure to reopen schools, with Gov. Spencer Cox, legislative leaders and a group of Salt Lake parents who filed a civil rights lawsuit calling for a change in course. The parents’ lawsuit demands the option of in-person learning for their children.

Recent reports that some 4,000 middle schoolers and high schoolers received at least one F grade or incomplete grade during the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year have heightened concerns locally and at the state level.

School district spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin said the school district had no comment.

Most Wasatch Front school districts have offered learners in-person and remote instruction options in an array of configurations since the start of school this fall. According to the districts, transmission of COVID-19 has been low in elementary schools and highest in high schools, which officials attribute to students’ mobility and tendency to socialize more outside of school but not necessarily use precautions that help reduce spread of the virus such as masking and social distancing.

Cox announced Friday that the state’s K-12 educators will be eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines starting Monday.

State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said in a statement that she is pleased that educators had been prioritized for vaccination.

“By allowing teachers to be a priority for the COVID-19 vaccine, we are giving them the necessary extra layer of protection to feel safe inside of their classrooms. This step allows school communities to continue to excel in meeting student needs by allowing for quality in-person instruction. I am proud to see Utah succeeding and leading in the nation by highlighting the importance of getting teachers vaccinated early,” Dickson said.