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The move, approved by the district education board on Thursday, is a response to the large number of coronavirus infections that continue to plague the Utah capital. After more than two hours of discussions, members decided it was less risky to keep the kids at home for at least the first month again this fall.
“Putting our kids back in the classroom is important,”; board chairman Melissa Ford told the virtual meeting. “And we intend to do it as soon as it is safe.”
The decision came in a much tougher meeting than the chaos that colored the board debate on the topic last week, which then ended in a stalemate. However, one member, Michael Nemelka, still voted against the plan Thursday in the 6-1 call. And, with his camera turned off this time, he said he would continue to believe that teachers who want to continue with distance learning are “lazy.”
Ford and others backed down from 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 aims to monitor cases of the virus when a return to the classroom can occur with certainty. Any reopening will approximate either the middle mark or the end of the quarter so as not to spoil grades and grades. The first quarter ends on October 30th.
To return, Interim Supervisor Larry Madden said the district is looking at two standards. The average positivity rate in the largest county, he said, will have to be in the 5% of those tested. Currently, it is at 9.32%. The district is also looking into cases for 100,000 people. To reopen, it will have to be below 10. Now, it is at 17.9.
“We want to start the year carefree,” Madden told 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 13-page board plan also shows what a hybrid or personal return would look like when it is possible to return.
Even with online classes, however, sports in the district will be allowed to resume. And those in need of extra help can schedule one-on-one appointments with their teachers or a counselor, Madden said.
Now, all teachers are trained in the best methods for distance learning. And all the materials are concentrated on one website around, so families do not have to find multiple platforms. Moreover, the school district has purchased 6,000 more laptops for those who do not have access to computers at home, and is working to ensure that all students have internet access – one of the key capital issues left online.
Nearly 1,500 parents and teachers attended the discussion Thursday. When the decision was announced to continue virtually, the comments section erupted with “What a relief!” and thank you! “and” Well done! “
The 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 left in an area – in the capital – that is still considered “orange”, or at moderate risk for the spread of the coronavirus. Under this status, classes are supposed to be held remotely.
Madden said he appreciated the reaction from both sides and that it has helped the region get what he described as “the most difficult decision possible”.
Most of the board supported the plan. Member Nate Salazar said he loves being “rooted in science”. Member Katherine Kennedy added that most of the voters she has heard from are in favor.
Others questioned how the district would specifically help the most vulnerable students and joined in voting on the plan when they heard the answer. Sandra Buendia, the district executive director for educational capital and student support, assured that children who are learning English, have disabilities, are refugees, or simply need a safe space will be a focus. The district will send staff to any families in need, especially those who have been most difficult to reach, to make sure students have what they need to start classes.
All students and parents will have the opportunity to meet with their teachers two weeks before the start of school. And they can use that time to protect their needs. The district will also make assessments of each child to see who could fall behind the spring and can use more attention, Buendia said.
Breakfast and lunch programs will continue, too, for families.
At one point during the discussion, Member Michelle Tuitupou asked, “How will 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 diamond on a second computer screen, which could be seen live, and many residents were upset. This week, when it was his turn to speak, he stated that he would not turn on his camera because of this. “That’s why you don’t have my picture right now,” he said.
Nemelka, a retired teacher, went on to say that she did not understand why the teachers were not willing to go back to class. He compared them to firefighters and doctors and grocery store workers who worked during the pandemic “despite the risk”.
“They have courage and we applaud them for it. Then why do some teachers not want to take their place in front of the class?” He asked. “For those teachers who are afraid of the life you live, you need to take a look at yourself.”
He said in-person instructions are the most important part of the job. “I still believe online learning is a lazy way of learning K-12,” he added.
As he spoke, some in the comments called for him to resign. Nemelka’s seat is ready for election this year, with one person, Jenny Sika, running against him.
Ford had started the meeting on Thursday saying the way the board discussion went last week was not the right one, showing mostly concerns with Nemelka, as well as Kennedy pushing to end the debate at exactly 6pm because she had other plans. Students, Ford said, should be the priority of the board.
“Last week, other priorities and personal concerns moved away from that focus,” she said. “These kinds of distractions have no place in a board meeting.”
For now, she said, the main concern is keeping students safe. While many prefer in-person teaching and see it as the most effective way to teach children, Ford added, it is very dangerous in the current conditions in the city.
But the district is still preparing when it may be safer to open by fixing air systems in schools, installing sanitary stations on the playground and setting up plexiglass barriers. Because return, Ford said, is the goal.
The school plan says, “It is not in the best interest of our students or our families to continue indefinitely with a single distance opportunity, nor is it our goal.”