Salt Lake City delays reopening junior high and high schools until teachers can get vaccinated

The decision may impact negotiations with the Legislature over teacher bonuses.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo ) Larry Madden, interim superintendent of Salt Lake City School District, pictured outside the district’s offices. The district had planned to allow secondary students to return to classrooms in early February, but it has now postponed that until after teachers can get vaccinated.

Salt Lake City School District 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 proposal before it passed 5-2.

“What we’ve done tonight is basically throw everything into limbo,” said board member Kristi Swett, who opposed the move.

The vote calls into question an agreement that the district made with lawmakers to allow secondary students to return so that its teachers could collect a $1,500 bonus. The extra money was offered by the state for educating kids during the pandemic.

Salt Lake City School District has been the only one in the state to have its classes entirely online this fall. And the Republican-led Legislature has strongly disagreed with that decision, with now-Gov. Spencer Cox previously calling it a “huge mistake” that was damaging children.

When the district made the deal with the state, it was told its teachers would receive the first of two doses on Jan. 8 and 9. But delays by the federal government in shipping doses to Utah have pushed that back to the end of January or early February.

Board President Melissa Ford, the other opposing vote, said the district always intended to move forward and get students back to the classroom as soon as possible, suggesting that in-person instruction is best for learning. But other members said they didn’t appreciate the state pressuring them into returning before they felt it was safe.

“Our arm is being twisted,” said Mohamed Baayd, who is newly elected to the board.

Members also temporarily considered a measure to delay elementary students from returning. The board had voted late last year to have the youngest kids in the district start returning on Jan. 25. No changes were made, though, and they will still be able to come back to school as planned at the end of the month — even with the likelihood that their teachers will not be vaccinated by then.

The district has previously looked at data for the other four districts in Salt Lake County that all reopened in person. It shows that the rate for transmitting the coronavirus has been the same for those elementary students learning in the classroom as it has for the kids in Salt Lake City who have stayed home. As such, the district has felt comfortable moving forward with allowing them to return.

But the numbers diverge significantly for secondary schools. Older kids, the health department found, are spreading and contracting COVID-19 at a much higher rate when they return to school than compared to when they log in virtually.

“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.

This story is developing and will be updated.

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