The decision may impact negotiations with the Legislature over teacher bonuses.
Salt Lake City will delay reopening its junior high and high schools in early February as planned, postponing any in-person return to classrooms until after teachers can get both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The decision came just before midnight Tuesday after nearly four hours of debate by the city’s board of education. Members bickered back and forth, often interrupting each other and parsing each word of the controversial proposal before it passed 5-2.
“What we’ve done tonight is basically throw everything into limbo,” announced board member Kristi Swett — who opposed the delay — when the discussion finished.
When the district made the deal it was told its teachers would be vaccinated on Jan. 8 and 9. And it intended to reopen secondary schools on Feb. 8, about a week after educators would receive the second dose and be considered fully inoculated.
Interim Superintendent Larry Madden said Tuesday that the district always intended to get teachers and students back to the classroom as soon as possible, suggesting that in-person instruction is best for learning. He wouldn’t have negotiated returning, he suggested, if he didn’t feel comfortable with it.
“I don’t have anything to lose,” he said, noting that his leadership position is temporary. “I don’t need to appease the Legislature.”
Other members, though, said they didn’t appreciate being pressured into going back before they felt it was safe.
He added that he couldn’t support reopening schools without the safeguard of vaccinations that teachers were promised. And most of the board members agreed. Returning will be contingent on when both doses of the vaccine can actually be administered.
It’s unclear what will happen with the bonuses now. But the Salt Lake Education Association told the board in a letter that teachers in the local union don’t care about the money. They want their health to be the priority, and most want to continue instructing online while cases of the virus remain high in the capital.
“I’ve heard from a lot of teachers, but I did not hear from one teacher who said that they’d like to go back and get the money,” added board member Katherine Kennedy.
Joel-Lehi Organista, another new board member, said, “If they don’t want to go back, we shouldn’t force them. … A lot of people are scared. That’s real.”
The district has looked at data from the other four districts in Salt Lake County, which all reopened. It showed that the coronavirus transmission rate has been the same for elementary students learning in the classroom as it has for the kids in Salt Lake City who have stayed home. With that information, the district has felt comfortable moving forward with allowing them to return.
“It’s just not safe,” pleaded Edward Sanderson, a senior at West High, who asked the board to keep junior high and high schools online until the virus is more contained.
“Your choice to return in person could kill my family,” added 17-year-old Vishal Jammulapati, another student who spoke to the board Tuesday.
Online learning, he said, hasn’t been ideal; it’s better, though, than jeopardizing getting sick or spreading the virus to someone else in the community. Sanderson, Jammulapati and their friends started a petition with more than 1,000 signatures to continue with virtual classes.
The board members who wanted secondary students to resume in-person classes also argued that grades have been severely declining during remote instruction.
“Remote learning is difficult,” said Board President Melissa Ford, who also voted against the delay. “There are some students we aren’t reaching.”
She stressed that a number of high school seniors are at risk of not graduating. And she pushed for secondary students to return on Jan. 27 at the start of the term to give them time to make up credits.
Baayd, who has three kids in the district — one each in high school, middle school and elementary school — said he doesn’t want students to fall behind, adding that board members are in a tough spot. They shouldn’t have to make these decisions, but he believes they’ve been forced into it.
“The leadership on the national and state level, unfortunately, has failed everyone here,” Baayd said.
Jessica Johnson, a mother and EMT, echoed that, noting that she doesn’t feel a vaccine will fix everything — but making sure teachers get it first will make her feel safer about sending her daughter back to school.
Until that point, the board voted to continue allowing some secondary students into classrooms in small groups, especially if they’re failing or need additional help. The district will also start a “Stop the Spread” campaign to educate the community about ways to mitigate COVID-19 transmission.
There will also be cameras in every classroom so teachers can livestream lessons for those students who elect to continue learning online.