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Home / US / Salt Lake City schools will only start online this fall, with plans to return in person “as soon as it’s safe.”

Salt Lake City schools will only start online this fall, with plans to return in person “as soon as it’s safe.”

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The move, approved by the district’s board of education Thursday, is a reaction to the high number of coronavirus infections that continue to worry in the Utah capital. After more than two hours of discussion, members decided it was less risky to keep children at home for at least the first month back this fall.

“Getting our kids back to classes is important,” board chair Melissa Ford said at the virtual meeting. “And we intend to do so as soon as it is safe.”


The decision came at a chaos-stricken meeting that colored the board’s debate on the topic last week, which then ended in a stalemate. One member, though, Michael Nemelka, still voted against Thursday’s plan in the 6-1 schedule call. And, with his camera turned off this time, he said he would continue to believe that teachers who want to continue distance learning are “lazy.”

Ford and others forced him back against that remark.

Schools in the city will now start online on September 8 – under a two-week delay to give teachers, parents and students time to prepare. The district intends to monitor virus cases for when return to class can occur safely. Each reopening will be aligned either with the mark in the middle or at the end of a quarter so as not to disrupt classes and ranking. The first quarter ends October 30.

In order to return, interim Superintendent Larry Madden said the district is looking at two benchmarks. The average positivity rate in the largest county, he said, will be required for 5% of those tested. Currently, it is at 9.32%. The district is also seeing cases per 100,000 people. To reopen, it will be less than 10. Now, it’s at 17.9.

“We want to start the year with caution,” Madden said at a news conference after the meeting. “Our goal is to maintain a balance between the health and safety of our students and their education.”

The board’s 13-page plan also explains what a hybrid or person in the prospect might look like when it’s possible to go back.

Even with online classes, though, the sport in the district will be allowed to resume. And those in need of extra help can schedule one-on-one meetings with their teacher or counselor, Madden said.

Now, all educators have been trained on the best methods for distance learning. And all materials are centralized on a single district website so families don’t have to figure out multiple platforms. In addition, the school district has purchased another 6,000 laptops for those who do not have access to computers at home, and is working to ensure that all students have internet connections – one of the key issues of Equity to Stay Online

Nearly 1,500 parents and teachers watched the discussion Thursday. When the announcement of the decision continues almost, the comments section burst with “What a relief!” and “THANK YOU!” and “Good!”

Salt Lake City School District has been a focal point for the state when it comes to reopening schools. The district is the only one remaining in an area – in the capital city – still considered “orange”, or at moderate risk for the spread of the coronavirus. Under that status, classes are supposed to be held remotely.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parents and students within the Salt Lake City School District rally for K-12 students to return to school in person this fall, July 15, 2020.
(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parents and students within the Salt Lake City School District rally for K-12 students to return to school in person this fall, July 15, 2020.

Madden said he appreciated the response from both sides and helped the district take what he described as “the most difficult decision.”

Most of the board supported the plan. Member Nate Salazar said he likes that it’s “science-based.” Member Katherine Kennedy added that most of the constituents I have heard of are in favor.

Others asked questions about how the district specifically helps the most vulnerable students and joined in voting for the plan when they heard the answer. Sandra Buendia, the district’s executive director of educational equity and student support, assured that children who are learning English, have a disability, are refugees, or simply need a safe space will be in focus. The district will send staff to every family it needs, especially those that have been harder to reach, to ensure students have what they need for classes to get started.

All students and parents will have the option to meet with their teachers in the two weeks before school starts. And they can use that time to support their needs. The district will also conduct assessments of each child to see who might fall after the spring and may use more attention, Buendia said.

Breakfast and lunch programs will continue, as well, for families.

At one point during the discussion, Member Michelle Tuitupou asked: “How do you work with working parents?” And Nemelka, the board member who called the teachers “lazy,” laughed.

Last week, during the board debate, he had played solitaire on the second computer screen, which could be seen on live streaming, and many residents were upset. This week, when it was his turn to speak, he stated that he would not turn his camera on it. “That’s why you don’t have my picture now,” he said.

Nemelka, a retired teacher, went on to say that they did not understand why the educators were not willing to return to class. He compared them to firefighters and doctors and grocery store workers who worked during the pandemic “despite the danger.”

“They have courage and we praise them for it. So why don’t some teachers want to take their place in front of the class?” She asked. “For those teachers who are afraid of the life you live, you have to take a look at yourself.”

He said in-person instruction is the most important part of the job. “I still believe that online learning is a lazy way of learning K-12,” he added.

As he spoke, some in the comments asked him to slow down the action. Nemelka’s seat is for this year’s election, with one person, Jenny Sika, running against it.

Ford had started the meeting Thursday by saying that how the board’s discussion went last week was inappropriate, largely indicating concerns with Nemelka, as well as that Kennedy is pushing for ends the debate at exactly 6 pm because she had other plans. Students, Ford said, should be the board’s priority.

“Last week, other priorities and personal concerns removed that focal point,” she said. “These kinds of distractions have no place in a board meeting.”

Right now, she said, the main concern is to keep students safe. While many prefer teaching people and seeing that as the most effective way for children to learn, Ford added, it is too dangerous in the current conditions in the city.

But the district is still preparing for when it can be safer to open by adjusting school air systems, installing sanitation stations in the courtyard and throwing plexiglass barriers. Because return, Ford said, is the goal.

The school plan states: “It is not in the best interests of our students or families to proceed indefinitely with remote selection only, nor is that our intention.”

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