On the other hand: The Utah legislature and the Salt Lake City school board


There’s always another side to any story, right? There’s been quite an uproar over the Utah legislature talking about a proposal to pay teachers and staff and additional $1000 to $1500 – except for Salt Lake City School District teachers. Teachers have been doing incredibly heavy-lifting since March. They are heroes. 

The blame for this impasse lies squarely at the feet of the school board. The Salt Lake City School Board, you might recall, is the one where one member of the board called teachers “lazy” and could be seen playing Solitaire during board meetings, another sent profanity-laced texts to the board chair when a meeting ran long and there seems to be repeated violations of the state’s Open and Public Meetings Act. Clearly, the board is divided and not able to function as they should.

Parents have sent letters, watched board meetings, petitioned board members, transferred their kids out of the district, and now a dozen of them have filed a lawsuit asking the courts to intervene, probably out of sheer frustration. There are many reasons to re-open K-12 schools for at least some type of face-to-face learning, including tanking grades (they’re not the only district seeing that, though), increasing disconnection from academic work (I’ve heard it called “Remote Learners in Name Only”) and mental health impacts. 

In the most recent “Mental Health in America” report, researchers found that youth mental health is worsening and the rate of severe depression was “highest among youth who identify as more than one race,” and 60% of youth with major depression did not receive any mental health treatment and only 27.3% received consistent treatment.

In their spotlight on COVID-19 and mental health, the numbers are even more alarming. The number of people looking for help with anxiety and depression has skyrocketed, with a 93% increase in the number of people looking for help for anxiety and a 62% increase in the number of people looking for help for depression. More people are reporting suicidal and self-harm ideation than ever recorded since the Mental Health Association launched its screening program in 2014. Most concerning of all, the MHA notes that young people ages 11-17 are struggling the most and minority groups as a subset have seen the steepest increases in anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Of all people reporting moderate to severe anxiety and depression between April and September 2020, more than a super-majority (70%) said that loneliness was among the top three contributing factors. 

You probably all know the story of the fence on the cliff or the ambulance in the valley – preventing a crisis or cleaning up after a crisis. The same idea applies not only to mental health and wellness, but to academics as well. These teens who are failing their classes are headed off a cliff. It’s much harder to get a GED later in life than it is to graduate from high school. Lower GPAs begin to restrict possibilities for life after high school in a myriad of ways, including not being accepted to some colleges or universities, a belief that they “can’t” handle post-secondary education, then leading to decreased job opportunities and salary level. It’s a chain-reaction of increasing difficulty for these kids.

Health risks are real, but the research and tracking of the COVID-19 spread has provided plenty of data. We already know that the spread of COVID-19 is rare at the elementary level and relatively rare at middle schools and high schools. It’s the out-of-school activities where the spread is higher – and teens will get together. If the schools are closed, they’ll find another venue. Educators have been prioritized as front-line workers to receive the vaccine. Speaker Brad Wilson noted on Twitter that directors from the CDC visited Utah in October and emphasized that from a health perspective, the safest places for kids to be is in the classroom (where they are reliably and consistently masked up).

That brings us back to the proposal by the legislature. I still question the propriety of using teachers – who are most definitely NOT lazy as a point of leverage with the school board. However, I also wonder if the legislature is exasperated with a board filled with in-fighting and multiple alleged improprieties and who, out of deep concern for the students and their families, feel they need to make sure the Salt Lake City School District Board knows they are serious about protecting the mental and educational well-being of all students in the state. 

Teachers, parents and students are the ones paying the price here. It remains to be seen who will “win” this game of chicken.