SUNSET — “What’s his name?” an ebullient group of fifth grade students at Fremont Elementary School asked their principal, Adell Arvidson, during their recess break.

“I’m Steve,” answered state Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton.

In the days leading up to the 2021 Utah legislative session, set to begin Tuesday, Handy paid a visit to the elementary school to observe how classrooms have transformed to adapt to COVID-19 and talk with educators, who have faced unprecedented challenges in a school year shaken up by the pandemic.

Arvidson led Handy through the halls of the school, discussing special learning programs and peering into classrooms.

“Look at the barriers they have built between the teachers and the kids,” Handy said.

With a small population of 224 students, according to Utah State Board of Education enrollment data, the school has not yet had to close due to a COVID-19 outbreak. According to the state health department’s COVID-19 School Manual, all schools with less than 1,500 students must move to remote learning for two weeks once they have reached 15 cases.

While other elementary schools in the Davis School District have been forced online, Fremont Elementary has stayed below five cases, Arvidson said. It has, however, had to shut down multiple classrooms. The state health department has set the case threshold in an individual classroom at three.

Balancing instruction for students who are at home, quarantined, and for those who are in class, has been difficult for teachers, Arvidson told Handy.

“It’s like two full-time jobs — being a Canvas online instructor and in-person full-time instructor, combine that together,” said Austin Green, a first grade teacher at the school.

Learning from home has also been hard for students, Arvidson added. Fremont Elementary is a Title I school, where 43.8% of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Many students come from families whose parents need to work during the day and don’t have the ability to take time off. So when a student is placed on quarantine, without a teacher or parent telling them to do their school work, that child often chooses not to.

“That’s one of the huge disasters in all of this that will take years to sort out, I think,” Handy remarked. Handy is among the many Republican state legislators who have pushed for schools to remain open during the pandemic.

In December, the Legislature announced it would increase the state’s public education budget in 2021. The budget appropriated $121 million to one-time bonuses for teachers and other K-12 employees — as long as they worked in a school that provides in-person learning options.

That portion of the provision, added by House Speaker Brad Wilson, was meant to pressure the Salt Lake School District to return to in-person instruction. The district has indicated that students will not return to the classroom until all educators within the district have the opportunity to be vaccinated.

“I’m so grateful that our Utah schools, and Davis County has led the way, are keeping as much as possible kids in school. They learn better here,” Handy said.

The Davis School District started the school year on a hybrid schedule, meaning students spent two days each week inside the classroom, and two days learning at home. Students do not attend school on Fridays. The school board last semester voted to move students to a four-day-a-week schedule.

In addition to bonuses, the budget also restored a weighted pupil unit increase to 6% — a raise in funding that was planned for last year, but cut due to the pandemic. Weighted pupil unit is the measure used to determine how much state funding a district will receive. In 2020, Utah ranked last in per-pupil unit spending, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Overall, the Legislature is boosting public education funding by at least $400 million.

“We had to back down a little bit and tighten our belts with COVID, but because we did that, the funding is going to be amazing this year for education,” Handy said. “It’s always the number one priority, and we’re going to be able to do great things.”

He continued, “Money is not the answer to everything, but it sure goes a long way to keep and to retain and to attract skilled educators.”

Handy said it’s important for him and other legislators to spend time at schools because it allows them to see the application of legislative changes and how those can further be developed.

Forming relationships with lawmakers is important to Green, who works with Utah Teacher Fellows to get educators engaged and involved in finding solutions to problems in the classroom and proposing policy changes. To that end, he invited Handy and other local legislators to Fremont Elementary.

“I think working on relationships together and making sure those are strong helps us to know that what’s happening at the state level is trickling down and there’s a lot of great things happening in the classroom,” Green said. “So it’s very important that they come and get to see, you know, what the vision was at the beginning is actually happening at the end of the road.”

Along with budget changes, a host of other pieces of legislation related to K-12 education is slated to be considered in the upcoming legislative session, including:

House Bill 81 would make the mental or behavioral health of a child a valid excuse for a school absence. Previously, students who were struggling with mental health could only miss school if they had an appointment with a therapist or psychiatrist. The bill is modeled after an Oregon law that allows students to miss school for mental or behavioral health.

House Concurrent Resolution 3, named Concurrent Resolution Regarding Native American Mascots and Equality in Public Schools, was announced by Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-Salt Lake City, outside Bountiful High School on the day the school said it would change its mascot from the controversial “Braves.” If passed, the resolution would encourage schools to retire mascots tied to Native Americans and call on schools to provide instruction on the history and culture of indigenous people.

Senate Bill 91 would remove the requirement that the state school board use letter grades in school ratings. Similar pieces of legislation have been proposed over the last four years. In the last two years, the House overwhelmingly passed the bills, but they failed in the Senate. Critics of the letter grades say they unfairly punish low-income schools, while proponents say it provides an accountability rating that is easier for parents to comprehend.

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