SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — First lady Jill Biden spoke at a Salt Lake City school Wednesday as the U.S. makes uneven progress toward reopening classrooms during the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden, a teacher herself, visited Glendale Middle School, which has a diverse student body and returned to in-person instruction a few months ago. The stop is part of a swing through the U.S. West that includes Nevada and Colorado.
Biden visited with a few students and later spoke to a group of teachers in an auditorium where she thanked them for their work during the pandemic. She also stressed the Biden administration’s commitment to investing in education.
“There have been losses that we will never get back: loss of time with each other, loss of learning, and the loss of so many,” she said. “But the best gifts that we can give to show our appreciation for everything that you do, does not come from a store, it’s giving you what you need to be your best, investing in you.”
The visit comes shortly after President Joe Biden’s self-imposed deadline to reopen most U.S. elementary schools in his first 100 days. The school-tracking site Burbio found 62% of schools were offering in-person learning every day by then, though it wasn’t clear how many were elementary schools.
But a Biden administration survey of U.S. schools last month found striking variations in how students of different races and ethnicities were learning. Among fourth-graders, more than half of white students were being taught fully in person. By contrast, less than a third of Black and Hispanic fourth-graders were back in classrooms full time, along with just 15% of Asian students.
The disparities have raised alarms among advocates who worry the pandemic is worsening racial inequities in education. Debate also persists nationwide on how schools can reopen safely.
In conservative Utah, most schools reopened fully in the fall with precautions like social distancing and mask-wearing. Those in hard-hit Salt Lake City, though, stayed remote into February.
The district’s school board agreed to reopen after the state became one of the first in the country to prioritize teachers for vaccines. Vaccinations were a sticking point as discussions with teachers hit a stalemate in January in some of the nation’s largest school districts in places like California and Chicago.
At Glendale Middle, 65% of students are Hispanic, 12% are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander and 6% are Asian, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The area also has a large refugee community, and a majority of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Student grades dropped in Salt Lake City while all learning was conducted remotely but have improved since reopening for in-person classes, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. At Glendale Middle, half of students still received at least one F during the third quarter, but that was down from 61% in the first quarter, the paper found.
Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.