SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – There is no denying the pandemic has created its fair share of issues for schools. Probably one of the most-watched school districts is the Salt Lake City School District.
It’s been a long two years for the teachers and principals in the school district.
“It’s been two years since we’ve been able to have a somewhat normal beginning of the school year,” says Principal JaNeal Rodriguez of Liberty Elementary.
Mary W. Jackson Elementary Principal Tracy Sjostrom adds, “We are not looking at the past year as a loss in learning, we are going to meet them right where they are.”
As they help staff with the final touches before the start of school, Principals Rodriguez and Sjostrom hang onto hope for some normalcy this year.
“I’m so happy we are back together. It feels amazing. I’m not going to lie, I think we all got mildly depressed cause we were so isolated,” says Principal Sjostrom.
That face-to-face interaction means just as much to teachers as it does to students and their parents.
“We feel like we are able to respond to all student’s needs. Plus we have outside resources who we can reach out to just beyond our level,” says Principal Rodriguez.
Student’s needs will be the focal point during the 2021-2022 school year. And yes, COVID-19 is a major concern.
Principal Sjostrom tells us, “A lot of people are scared of coming back, I mean with the variant now, and students aren’t vaccinated in our building because they are younger than 12.”
On Friday, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued a districtwide mask mandate for students K-12. It’s a controversial subject and staff knows it.
“The way I approached it is I need to try and understand both sides of the story. I mean there are reasons people have the thoughts they have around masks, and I am not going to be judgmental about that,” says Principal Sjostrom. “We are going to heavily encourage [masks], and we are going to model that, but there would never be any shame about kids not wearing masks.”
Here is why. Mary W. Jackson Elementary is located on the northwest side of Salt Lake City.
The Rockets serve 433 students. Roughly 4 percent of the school’s population is African American, 20 percent is Caucasian, with the majority of students at 64 percent being of Hispanic descent. Asians, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders make up the rest of the school’s student population.
“This community was hit very hard with COVID, and people died, people got very sick, and it’s been very upsetting. There is a lot of grief that we all experienced,” says Principal Sjostrom.
Just southeast of Mary W. Jackson, across State Street is the Liberty Elementary Eagles.
The school is home to 337 students. A little more than 10 percent of students are African American, 34 percent are Caucasian. Hispanics make up 37 percent of the school. Asians, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders make up the remaining 19 percent.
Both Schools provide the majority, if not all of their students with free breakfast and lunch.
“We may not have had the best scores last year, but I believe that everyone did the best they could with what we had, and we have no regrets,” says Principal Rodriguez.
She knows everyone is struggling through this pandemic adding, “they survived something that people have no idea; I mean the adults and students, and the community they rally together, they support each other, and no one can take that away.”
Mental health will be a priority for the principals while making sure to keep things fun in the classroom too.
Principal Sjostrom tells us her personal motto, “I’ve realized that I wasn’t taking time either to destress and to play, we need to be able to play. Teachers and kids, that’s what sparks creativity, that’s what sparks joy, and then we can connect that joy to that learning, and we will remember what we have learned.”
Mary W. Jackson will have five new teachers this school year and Principal Sjostrom wants to make sure they all remember to balance work with fun.
“So, I like to lead people in that direction where they love themselves first, and they balance their lives and I’ve worked very hard on that,” she says. “I was kind of a stress case back in the day, an overachiever, and I realized that wasn’t doing it for me. I had to take care of myself if I was going to be a great leader.”
The principal’s team will have a three-step approach to deal with student’s mental health.
Tier 1 will get kids the proper skills around social and emotional learning.
Tier 2 & Tier 3 include working with a counselor or social worker.
“The students that we identified that need extra support, and extra love, we discuss in a meeting, and we brainstorm ideas of how we can help them the most. And then typically we offer them more resources with people,” says Principal Sjostrom.
The Eagles will also change their approach to mental health with a full-time school counselor, a part-time social worker, and an intern available to students.
“The purpose of it is to keep kids in class,” says Principal Rodriguez. “They are survivors of something that will be written in history. And, even though we want to write it away, we want it gone, it’s not, it’s forever part of us. And we can embrace it, harness it like we are today.”
The principals hope that with these plans in place, they can keep everyone happier and healthier this time around.
Throughout the SLC Classroom Chronicles, we plan on looking at how to keep these students happy and healthy. We’ll explore the social economics of the neighborhoods. Introduce you to staff, volunteers, and those who are making positive impacts on the children’s lives.
On Monday, ABC4 will shadow two teachers at the schools who are prepping for the first day of school in two years.