ST. GEORGE — During a meeting Thursday, the Utah State Board of Education and members of the public discussed the two current crises facing the nation: the COVID-19 pandemic and racial inequality and how to better provide for students moving into a new norm.
“Normalcy seems to be kind of a thing of the past,” board member Mike Haynes said. “Life, work, school, play — everything seems to be in chaos right now. And we seem to be seeing more and more people around the country whose trust in authority, leadership, and many of those, receiving harsh criticism at every turn.”
Haynes said it’s heartbreaking to see the country divided as it is and is praying that there can be a peaceful end to the unrest and that Americans can come out of it more unified and accepting of all people.
Furthering this discussion, Dasch Houdeshel, a science teacher and parent in Salt Lake City, spoke during the public comment period about the double lockdown that they have been experiencing in light of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests over racial inequality. He said when it comes to education, one of the best ways to approach these issues would be to build more schools in low-income and minority neighborhoods.
“We know that keeping class size small is critical to maintaining social distance and allowing to keep our schools open,” he said. “We also know that we must reopen our schools in order to provide a safe place for our children so that our parents can go back to work.”
Houdeshel said pushing to build more schools right now in low-income neighborhoods could offer a remedy to both emergencies at the same time.
“We know that minorities are being hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak,” he said. “And I know as a teacher that smaller class sizes results in better behavior, less violence, higher engagement by students and better academic performance.”
This effort would also carry outside of the classroom and into the community.
“I believe that if we invest in our poorest, most racially diverse communities by building schools now, our government could demonstrate that black lives matter and that we, the people of Utah, are willing to invest in our minority populations,” he said.
He added that building schools would be less expensive than having to shut down the economy again or extending curfews. He proposed the board make a request to build more schools to the governor.
Under the current budget cut recommendations moving through the legislature, funding for reducing class sizes and building new schools is proposed to be cut.
Superintendent Sydnee Dickson emphasized how school closures have amplified issues of inequality, not just in Utah but around the world. Students with disabilities and students learning English were some of the most affected by this disparity, she said. When teachers, parents and administrators were surveyed, it was these students who they were most concerned about having the most learning loss during the shutdowns.
Dickson said in places like Denmark, all students have a device and the same broadband, and they use these digital tools in the classrooms. The United States falls in the middle, where some states have more digital access and some have less.
Dickson said one of the things she found surprising is the amount of feedback she got back from teachers who wanted more guidance in what and how much to teach during closures.
She also mentioned the necessity in making sure as they move forward with budget considerations in light of potential cuts that they don’t lump all schools together, but rather focus on the individual needs to achieve equity.
“If we define equity as students getting the resources they need when they need it,” she said.
Dickson said she wanted to end on both a somber note and one of hope.
“As a white woman of privilege, I don’t know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a black young man or a black woman or even my employees of color at the board of education. I think we have to start having more courageous conversations and think about how we can do better by our students.”
She said she was mortified at the destruction happening in the city, but she was more so overwhelmed with sadness for any students who feel marginalized, unloved or disenfranchised from their schools.
“We can do better.”
As a part of this, Dickson said she will be creating a committee to develop and monitor a sustainable inclusive workplace for the board. She said they will also be recruiting and retaining persons of color that are more representative of the student body.
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