Covid-19, declining enrollment concerns take center stage at superintendent’s Listening & Learning TourNov 18, 2021 14h52 ● By Lizzie Walie
Superintendent Timothy Gadson addresses an auditorium of parents at Clayton Middle School. (Lizzie Walje/City Journals)
By Lizzie Walje | [email protected]
On Oct. 21, Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Timothy Gadson and his colleagues including Salt Lake City Board of Education President Melissa Ford and Auxiliary Services Administrator Paul Shulte addressed an auditorium of parents at Clayton Middle School.
Clayton’s town hall was the first of several to come as Gadson will be headlining the superintendent’s Listening & Learning Tour which will stretch from Oct. 21 to Dec. 2. During the tour, Gadson and his colleagues will be visiting Salt Lake City School District institutions all across the city. The plan is to visit a school within each precinct of the district. There will be seven stops on the tour.
The meeting began with a slideshow presentation where several of Gadon’s colleagues addressed issues in their areas of expertise. These presentations included information regarding Covid-19 policies, the district’s ongoing plans for IB and AP curriculum and school safety procedures. Following the presentations, came a question and answer segment. Parents and students were encouraged to write down their questions on an index card which were then gathered and distributed to the appropriate staff member to answer the question.
Below are some of the highlights of the town hall compiled and organized by category.
As a nation, we are well on our way to approaching two years of involvement in the Covid-19 pandemic, and yet, it continues to be one of the most contested and discussed subjects district-wide. Of course, parents want to know what is being done to keep students safe both mentally and physically. Shulte took the stage to discuss these concerns.
Shulte said that the district is doing the most to keep students protected including honoring Salt Lake Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s August mask mandate (which has recently been extended into December). He also discussed some of the protocols being taken to ensure schools across the district are adhering to proper cleaning procedure.
“We are currently generating our own hypochlorous acid on-site, in all schools across the district. It is one of the most highly regarded cleaning agents available and it is completely safe for your students to be exposed to. It takes water, salt, and electricity to make. If your child were to pick up the cleanser and consume it, there would be no consequences,” he said.
He went on to explain that touchpoints and common areas are being cleaned regularly. While the district’s budget has strained under the various precautions being taken, Shulte insisted it was being handled appropriately and that safety is top concern.
“Restrooms are cleaned four times a day. Sanitizers and face masks are available all throughout our schools, and we’ve eliminated touch points by creating alternatives such as touchless water fountains.”
Shulte addressed the mental strain that Covid-19 has had on students and the measures being taken to mitigate fallout. This was a particularly important talking point, as Gadson highlighted the desire to improve mental health conditions for students as a major part of his campaign for the position of superintendent.
Shulte explained that the district has partnered with Odyssey House, a well-known Utah substance abuse and mental health service provider to offer students access to free therapy.
“Our initiative with Odyssey House is a board-funded project. We already have 10 licensed social workers with plans to expand. We also offer students telehealth and in-person sessions where they can focus on self-awareness, self-regulation, and mindfulness,” he said.
During the question and answer segment, Gadson was asked if he worried about the notable decline in enrollment districtwide. Gadson acknowledged that the Salt Lake City School District has been losing students to private schools, charter schools, and even other districts within the Salt Lake metropolitan area.
Gadson responded by saying, “[The board and I] are extremely concerned. However, enrollment has been declining in the district for years. We agree that our board has to make this a priority. Over the summer I personally sent out over 6,000 letters to families that have left us over the years asking them to come back.”
Gadson explained that there are three main reasons as to why families cited their exodus from the district.
“For those families and students who were gracious enough to write back, they almost all cited one of three reasons for why they had left. Number one, some said they were waiting to see how things evolved after they were disappointed with decisions made during the last year. Number two, they left for programming that is not available in our district. Number three, they had developed a lack of trust in our system.”
Regardless of why students have chosen to leave, Gadson said that he’s taking it seriously. Whether or not these students attend schools in the district, their parents are continuing to pay taxes, and Gadson would rather these parents pay taxes that actually benefit their students directly.
“These are areas the board and I are working on,” he said. “We hope to win those families back over and persuade them to come back.”
Concerns Regarding Identity Politics
Toward the end of the question and answer segment, a parent wrote a question in response to comments made earlier in the week by a board of education member during the last board meeting. Essentially these comments dissuaded the acknowledgement of identity politics in schools. The parent wanted to reiterate concerns for the safety of all students, particularly those who identify as LGBTQ+ or BIPOC.
Ford responded by saying, “It’s not an easy time. It’s a divisive time. However, when we strip away the excess noise and really look at the kids, and focus in on the kids, those divisions tend to go away. Ultimately, we want to do what we can for every student. No matter where a student or parent sits on the ideological spectrum. We want them to know we want what’s best for their kids. We build trust with them.”
Upcoming Town Halls
If you are interested in attending one of the upcoming town halls, here is the schedule for the remainder of the Listening & Learning Tour:
- Oct. 28 – Precinct 1 - Northwest Middle School (1730 W. 1700 North)
- Nov. 4 – Precinct 7 - Hillside Middle School (1825 S. Nevada St.)
- Nov. 9 – Precinct 5 - Liberty Elementary (1085 S. Roberta Street)
- Nov. 11 – Precinct 3 - Washington Elementary (420 N. 200 West)
- Nov. 18 – Precinct 4 - SLCSE-Bryant (40 S. 800 East)
- Dec. 2 – Precinct 2 - Glendale Middle School (1430 W. Andrew Ave.)