IN FOCUS: Salt Lake City Teachers and COVID-19 Hazard Pay

In Focus

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – On Wednesday, the Majority Leadership and the House passed a motion to propose $1,500 bonus checks for all Utah teachers and $1,000 for school staff alongside a massive budget increase for Public Education.

“As we started looking at the revenue numbers, they were coming in pretty strong and we started talking about ways we could spend that extra money. From the very beginning, teachers were number one on the list,” says Rep. Brad Last, Executive Appropriations Chair.

He added, “We know this has been a crazy year and we needed to do something not just for the teachers but for everybody in schools — the janitors, the bus drivers, the secretaries, the classroom aids because these people have all pulled together to make sure our students, the children in this state have had an educational opportunity.”

Rep. Last said the dollar amounts of the stipend checks came down to the math. Lawmakers took the amount available and divided it by the approximate 65,000 employees in the state that fit into the public education category.

According to the motion, the bonus checks will go to “K-12 educators and staff of districts that provide in-person or a combination of in-person and virtual options.” The Salt Lake City District is the only one in the state currently teaching almost all classes online, which means they could possibly be excluded from the stipends.

The possibility of exclusion has led to disagreements and backlash among multiple individuals, groups, and public figures across the state, both in and out of the education realm. Rep. Brian King, House Minority Leader said he’s heard from students, teachers, non-teachers, and parents both inside and outside the Salt Lake City School District who feel there should be an “even-handed approach.”

“If there’s grievances about what the SLCSD’s Board of Education has chosen to do as far as not providing an option for in-person learning, we shouldn’t take that out on the teachers,” said Rep. King. “I think it’s not just hazard pay. I think it’s a recognition of the challenges, the unique challenges that COVID puts in place for any teacher to do their job well. I just think it’s an acknowledgment that we’re asking them to do something really difficult during very challenging times.”

He went on to say, “We should have some other way to incentivize to do what we think is best from a legislative perspective or better yet in some ways, we shouldn’t micromanage that decision from the legislative perspective.”

Some educators in the Salt Lake City School District, who talked to ABC4 News on Thursday, said they felt the move was “disrespectful” and “unfair.

“I’d like to start by thanking them for the commitment to funding education at that six percent increase. I’d like to thank them for this stipend,” said Melissa Ford, President of the Salt Lake City School Board. “But I would also love for legislators to come see what education looks like in the SLCSD and how hard our employees and teachers are working.”

Rep. Last said the motion was “not about the teachers in the SLCSD,” but about administrative decisions. He cited a Salt Lake Tribune article from December 5th that stated students in the Salt Lake City School District were failing at a 600 percent rate, compared to last year.  He also added that the CDC said in October that the best place for students is in the classroom because of the controlled environment.

“At least in the classroom, you have teachers who can encourage students to keep their masks on. You’ve got hand sanitizer, hand washing, desks being wiped down multiple times a day. Outside of that environment, who knows what’s going on? In Salt Lake County, the transmission is still very high and school has not been in session. So it must be happening somewhere else other than schools,” said Rep. Last.

ABC4 News asked Rep. Last how he would respond to those who felt that SLCSD teachers were being punished by being possibly excluded from the stipends.

“Well, I guess if we’re talking about who’s being punished, I think we have to think about the students. In my opinion, the students are the unfortunate ones that are being punished right now. The teachers, as you suggested, didn’t have anything to do with this decision. They are doing the very best they can under very trying circumstances,” he said.

He added, “My heart goes out to the teachers in the Salt Lake District and we’re not trying to punish you. If we were punishing the Salt Lake District or the teachers, we would simply say, ‘You’re not going to get this money because you didn’t have live classes during this period of time.’ That’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying, ‘Here’s a pot of money. Here’s what we expect. If you start the in-person classes, you can have the money.’ So it’s not about punishment, it is about incentivizing behavior.”

Rep. King said the motion is not written in a way that makes it clear that it will preclude the stipends from being paid. He said SLCSD could take steps between now and the beginning of the session on January 19th to address concerns with the legislature. They can also provide information showing that will provide in-person learning for a wide variety of students with special needs.

Ford said the SLCSD already committed to bring elementary school students back in January.

“The Board’s always been committed to finding opportunities for our students to be in the buildings. We committed right at the beginning to having our students back in the classrooms, in-person as soon as we felt it was safe to do so in our community and a commitment to follow data and information as learn it and be flexible in that process,” said Ford. “We remain committed in doing everything we can to provide the top-notch educator that our students deserve and our teachers are working so hard to deliver to their students.”

To watch the full IN FOCUS discussion with Rep. Last, Rep. King, and Ford, click on the video at the top of the article.

Catch IN FOCUS discussions with ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen weeknights on the CW30 News at 7 p.m.

Rosie Nguyen is an award-winning journalist who joined the ABC4 News team as a reporter in January 2018. In September 2020, she embarked on a new journey as the anchor for the CW30 News at 7 p.m. Although she’s not out in the field anymore, she is continuing her passion for social justice and community issues through the nightly “In Focus” discussions.

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