EDUCATION + SCHOOLS

SLC school board votes 4-3 to delay start of school year; remote learning still a possibility

Jul 21, 2020, 4:38 PM | Updated: 7:49 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – The Salt Lake City School District is feeling a lot of pressure from parents about the topic of reopening schools, but not all board members are on board with what district leaders are proposing.  Interim Superintendent Larry Madden wants to keep all lessons online, exclusively, until the end of the first quarter.

Madden says this is an extremely unusual position for the board and many educators have been flooded with emails that they haven’t been able to answer.  He says their goal is to have kids return, eventually, to in-person learning.  However, he also says the number of COVID-19 cases is still on the rise and they need to be mindful of the physical and mental health of all families in the district. 

The proposal

To that end, he proposes sticking with exclusively online learning for the first quarter of the year, which completes at the end of October.  Madden says any kind of online learning won’t be a repeat of what happened in the spring, when a lot of students fell through the cracks.

“In spring, we were in ‘emergency mode.’  We handed out computers and we figured out how to get food to families, and we went home.  Everyone was thrown into, kind of, uncharted territory,” Madden says.

The district will be using only one online learning platform, Canvas, instead of allowing teachers to use several different ones like they did in the spring.  He also proposed delaying the first day of school to September 8th, the Tuesday after Labor Day.  District officials say the two week delay will allow teachers to meet with their students face-to-face before lessons start, and can be used to train parents on how to use Canvas.

Some board members, like Vice President Nate Salazar, say the proposal is a good one.  He believes there is too much about COVID-19 that scientists don’t know and keeping kids home will help protect everyone.

“It’s very scary to me to think that we would be putting kids at risk in some capacity without making a more informed decision at some point in the future.  If that’s October, it makes sense to me,” says Salazar.

The pushback

The strongest opposition to the proposal came from Precinct 2 Representative Michael Nemelka.

“Online teaching is just a lazy way to teach children,” Nemelka says.  “I can give you example after example after example of what happened over the spring.”

He also believes some learning has to happen face-to-face.  Nemelka says, if they don’t offer in-person classes at vocational schools, they might as well not have them.  Plus, he says most of his parents want to have a choice about how their students will learn.

“I’ve lost, in my schools, the two that are closest to me, over 500 students to a charter school that is going to open, face-to-face, with an after-school program,” according to Nemelka.

In the end, the board decided to approve delaying the first day of school, but declined to vote on Madden proposal to only use online classes.  They want to allow parents, teachers and other stakeholders to offer input before making their decision. Precinct 7 Representative Kristi Swett says too many people need more information about what’s on the table.

Swett says, “I’m still hearing from teachers saying they don’t know what their day is going to look like.  Also, parents… there is no information that has gone to parents to help quell down those fears that they’re having about what an online experience would look like.”

However, until the board makes an official decision otherwise, the district will still act as if it’s moving forward with Madden’s proposal for strictly online learning.

Dueling petitions

Some board members say the parents in their precincts are fairly evenly split on whether they want in-person learning or not.  Recently, two competing petitions have been posted to Change.org.  One of them calls on district leaders to open schools for in-person learning.  The petition creator says the burden of school closures will be especially harmful to kids living in an unstable home.

It states…

“How can we deprive our students, particularly those most at-risk, from an in-class education when we know from our spring experience that many did not engage in remote learning?” 

The other petition comes from parents living on the west side of the city, demanding schools stay closed during the pandemic.  It says…

“We know that the east side residents have the ear of the Board but please know that while they are busy making demands to reopen, we are busy keeping the grocery stores open so that they can get food, keeping pharmacies open so they can get medicine, and keeping the hospitals and clinics open so that when they get sick from this awful virus, we can help them get better.

Whatever the board decides to do, they don’t have much time to make a decision.  District Spokesperson Yándary Chatwin says they have to submit their plan to the state by August 1st.

“It’s a decision that needs to be made fairly quickly so that everyone can start planning.  Parents, educators, staff members… everyone,” she says.  “What we need to do is ensure we’re making the best decision to keep our students and our employees safe while also balancing the need to provide a quality education for our students during a pandemic.”

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SLC school board votes 4-3 to delay start of school year; remote learning still a possibility