December 16, 2020

SLC elementary school students will resume in-person learning in January amid controversy

Mountainview Elementary School, normally bustling with students, families and teachers, will welcome back students in a phased approach in January. PHOTO BY DAVID RICKETTS
Mountainview Elementary School, normally bustling with students, families and teachers, will welcome back students in a phased approach in January. PHOTO BY DAVID RICKETTS|||| Mountainview Elementary School, normally bustling with students, families and teachers, will welcome back students in a phased approach in January. PHOTO BY DAVID RICKETTS|||| ||||
By Nina Yu

Millions of students around the world, including those in the Salt Lake City School District, have been learning remotely via computer during the pandemic. Amid much conflict, the SLC School Board voted 4-3 on Nov. 17 to start allowing elementary school students back into the classroom beginning in late January.

The school board had planned to maintain remote learning until the end of the first quarter (Oct. 30) or until health conditions improved enough to allow students back into the classrooms. With COVID-19 cases significantly increasing daily since mid-September, remote learning has continued throughout the first trimester.

Online learning has taken a toll on students’ grades; data obtained by the Salt Lake Tribune showed that junior high and highschool students are failing classes at double the rate of last year. And those rates are triple for elementary school students. Lower income students in Title I schools on SLC’s West Side are struggling the most, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

As students return to schools, health officials urge students to be cautious.“Most of the transmission in the community is occurring via social contact with family, friends, and extended family,” said Nicholas Rupp, the Communications & PR Manager at the Salt Lake City Health Department. “Students in the SLCSD still need to be vigilant about wearing a face covering whenever they are around anyone they don’t live with and staying six feet away from anyone they don’t live with.”

At a July 30 online Salt Lake City school board meeting, Interim-Superintendent Larry Madden, presented the district’s school reopening plan with the proposed goals to “provide quality learning while maintaining the safety of our community,” and to “take steps that will allow us to open and remain open as soon as it is safe.”

Since that meeting, there has been contentious debate among board members, parents, and teachers who have conflicting opinions about reopening schools.

“In the beginning, I didn’t think it was wrong for the Salt Lake School District to be fully remote. But I had no idea how difficult it would be for my whole family,” said former Poplar Grove resident, Tawni La Salle. “It was just a huge realization for me that my kids do much better in a classroom setting, interacting with other kids.”

“We [have been] doing 100% remote learning,” said James Tobler, teacher and president of the Salt Lake Education Association (the local teachers’ union). “However, we are doing small group, in-person instruction as well. SLEA supports remote learning due to the high transmission and positivity rates [of COVID-19]. Teachers are also doing one-on-one Zoom calls for students who are struggling. The conditions of our union right now are that we don’t reopen our schools until the positivity rate falls below 5%,” he said. Currently, Utah’s positivity rate is above 20%.

Despite the pandemic, teachers and principals had prepared and worked hard to make this school year seem as normal as possible for their students.

“I don’t think that there’s a time my teachers worked harder than during this pandemic,” said Heather Newell, the principal at Backman Elementary School. “They have been fielding phone calls, emails, messages, and texts all while thinking about their students 24/7. We are doing something we have never done before, and my teachers are all in. We did small group learning last summer with some of our kids with disabilities and in special education. We took safety precautions, everyone spread out and wore masks, the areas were cleaned before and after. It worked well.”

Teachers’ lessons have been delivered through an online platform called Canvas and students interact with their teachers in a face-to-face call each week through Zoom. However, some parents are less than satisfied with the experience.

“It was hard having three Zoom classes going on at the same time,” said La Salle, who has three children. “In addition, I was working from home a couple times a week. I couldn’t monitor my kids while I was working, and my kids would skip classes or ignore the teacher.” She also said her kids did not have one-on-one Zoom calls with their teachers, although there were parent-teacher conferences.

She and her husband made the difficult decision to move out of the Salt Lake City School District so that their children could go back to school in person. “Putting our kids back in classes may increase the risk of COVID for our family, but we believe there are equal or greater risks to the physical and mental health of our children, as well as their educational growth that need to be considered. We also believe the schools can implement better protocols, from mask-wearing to temperature checks to alternating days and times so not all students are at school at once,” said La Salle.

Other parents are adamant about not having school reopen until the virus conditions improve in Utah. School districts outside of Salt Lake have held in-person instruction and have had outbreaks that led to shifting instruction online. A Salt Lake Tribune article reported that the Utah Education Association said that back-and-forth is disruptive for students.

“It has depended on the subject,” said Fairpark resident, Circe Arzola, when asked about how her son is managing online classes. “Music classes are harder compared to other subjects such as language arts. My son has to find other ways to learn the trumpet, perhaps compared to a student who is taking private lessons.”

Right now, one of the main benefits of online learning is health-related. Parents who support online learning are aware of the high transmission rates of COVID-19, or they have family members who they want to keep safe from the virus. Most parents understand that teachers are doing the best that they can during this pandemic. Some of the older teachers struggle with the technology that is involved and some struggle with talking to a Zoom class full of black screens.

“My son understands the ‘why’ of online classes, but of course he wants to be in-person and around people his age. He wants to see his teachers and have that connection,” Arzola said. “However, these case numbers are high and our hospitals are at full capacity. I think people would think twice if they saw what I [as a healthcare worker] see every day. I think it is irresponsible to make the decision of going back to in-person classes. It is toying with peoples’ health.”

The SLCSD provides additional resources and online support for academic and emotional aid such as office hours, help sessions, and counseling.