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Sugar House Journal

As options change for Salt Lake City schools, students views changed too

Jan 11, 2021 12h15 ● By Katy Whittingham

Xavier M., a fifth-grade student at Whittier Elementary, works remotely work from his home.

By Katy Whittingham | [email protected] 

While virtual learning was the only option for area students at the end of the last school year, many schools opened the school year of 2020-21 with multiple options, including some face to face learning depending on circumstances and risk factors within families. 

Students enrolled in Salt Lake City District schools, however, have had only a virtual learning option since the start of this school year, but this is set to change, after a much debated and close decision by the school board, for elementary students in late January and early February 2021, while high school and middle school students will remain fully online until a decision is revisited on Jan. 5. 

Xavier M., a fifth-grader at Whittier Elementary that falls within the Salt Lake City School District, expressed his ideal scenario for going back to school in early August. At the time he said he would like “three days of home school and two days in school” to have the opportunity to see his friends. 

Catching up with Xavier now, he seems to have adapted to the single online option offered by his district, and his feelings are much more ambivalent. He now says, “I’ve gotten used to online school and actually like it for the flexibility. On Wednesday we have digital day, so I did some school in the morning, and then went skiing with my family.” Xavier also said he will be fine whether he can return to face to face learning in school in February or not depending on whether case counts become too high or other factors. 

Currently, students in the district attend class online during regular school hours and follow a standard school schedule. Their educators include “live” teaching and interaction with their students using video conferencing technology such as Zoom and Teams. Depending on their level in school, some self-directed learning is also an option for students. 

Temma M., Xavier’s mother, expressed that a large contribution to Xavier’s success is his teacher, Cathy Bigler. Bigler, an educator with decades of teaching experience, learned more about videoconferencing technology right along with her students. 

“She would get instructions from Xavier and his classmates on skills like screen sharing,” Temma said. “It’s clear she misses having the kids in person, but she uses engaging language to connect with them remotely.”

Last August, Xavier was also concerned about the social aspect of missing his friends, but he seems to have worked that out for the most part too. He said that ideally he would like to see his friends more and socialize regularly at school, but “scheduling outdoor hangout times when possible lets me still see my friends.”

While some students like Xavier are adapting socially and academically, there have been practical and deeper concerns about fully online learning, especially for younger elementary school students. Some parents and caregivers in the district have been expressing these concerns at school lunch pickups, board meetings, protests, and in letters and emails. 

One parent of a first-grade student in the district, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “The expectations for a 4-, 5-, or even 6-year-old to navigate online learning is unrealistic.” She said, while her son’s teacher is “really great,” he does not have the attention at 5 years old to do the work on his own, so she, her husband, or older daughter have to sit with him while he works. “Other elementary schools are open, so I don’t understand why the younger children can’t go back now,” she said. 

Virtual learning can be affected by internet problems, background sound within a student’s work space, and difficulty with focus, especially when other members of a household may also be working or schooling from home. Younger students, those from lower income households, those with working parents, especially essential workers, and those with learning and other disabilities that may require special services may be most affected. Studies continue on the longer term effects on social development, mental health, and academic motivation without an in-person school network. 

Some parents and community members that were in favor of elementary schools in the district reopening pointed to the four other districts in the county: Canyons, Granite, Jordan and Murray as having successful elementary reopenings and first quarters with positive test rates for students attending face to face school not statistically much different than those online learning at 1% for face to face and .7% for online learning, according to health department data in November 2020. Others who opposed reopening noted a lack of an available vaccine and lack of extensive teacher feedback considered as two major issues. Those in this camp simply feel that safety must come first, and the district should stick to the original metric set of 5% or less positivity rate for those tested in the greater county. At the time of the board decision in November, the county was at one of its highest positivity rates since the start of the pandemic at 24.4%. 

Despite the debate, Xavier and many other children and educators have shown their ability to adapt and have shined despite the obstacles. His teacher, Bigler, said that while online learning has been stressful for everyone at times, she has learned new ways of teaching and reaching students. 

“After 36 years of teaching, that’s really saying something,” she said. “I’m also extremely impressed by the resilience of students dealing with the challenges. My students are amazing.”