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Park City School District directions on vaccine talk don’t align with health guidelines

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Park City High School; teachers there and on other campuses are unhappy with new directions not to discuss COVID or any vaccines.

While county, state and national health agencies want schools to promote COVID-19 vaccines, Park City School District is taking a different approach, directing employees not to discuss the subject.

In mid-November, the Park City School District Human Resources Department issued a memo to employees reminding them student medical information is private. The memo said employees can’t ask if students are vaccinated, nor can employees express opinions about vaccines. Furthermore, staff cannot initiate any discussion about vaccines, and should redirect the conversation if students brings the subject up.

But the Utah Department of Health strongly recommends schools encourage all staff and students five and older get vaccinated.

Public health recommendations are not laws; school districts can disregard them if they choose.

But one of Utah’s leading pediatricians says schools can play a valuable role in preventing the spread of COVID-19; one way to do that is hosting vaccine clinics.

Andy Pavia is chief of pediatric infectious diseases for University of Utah Health. On Friday he said it is more important than ever to vaccinate children in light of the new omicron variant - and he regrets politics keep some people from protecting kids.

“I wish people would listen to the majority of parents and do what's best for the majority of kids and not listen to those who shout the loudest, but sadly I think sometimes it's the minority that shouts that influences what we do,” Pavia said.

In Summit County, Health Director Phil Bondurant said local focus should be on the importance of vaccinating children and celebrating families who take that step. He declined to comment on the memo from the Park City School District.

North and South Summit school districts said Friday they don’t have any policies that prevent employees from talking about vaccines.

Several Park City teachers and parents expressed concerns about the memo.

Angela Anderson is a parent of two students in the district. She’s also a scientist and director of Life Sciences Editors. She said public health issues have a place in classrooms.

“I do agree that the discussions in class should focus on the curriculum," Anderson said. "But I think that vaccines and public health initiatives are relevant and should be open to discussion even and especially if they're uncomfortable, and I think that kids and teachers in the district should embrace that.”

Park City school employees say they’ve been told not to speak to media. Teachers discussed the new policy with KPCW on condition of anonymity. They strongly agreed that students should not be asked their vaccination status, but said that’s already a well-established part of educational privacy laws.

One asked why teachers should not discuss public health data, because it makes sense to discuss vaccines in terms of statistics and data analysis, which is the crux of science education.

Another teacher took issue with the part of the memo that said vaccines are not part of the core curriculum, saying they have an obligation to teach historical and current science, and vaccines are part of that.

A third teacher told KPCW they worry about speaking off the cuff and getting in trouble, and said they feel they’re doing students a disservice by not talking about current events, which could be a huge lesson on how to interact with others.

Brad Asay, president of Utah’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 10 teachers in the Park City school district, said the new policy is not about educational privacy but rather about science and speech.

“If you have a student in class that has a question about the vaccines based on science that a teacher’s not allowed to answer their questions," Asay said. "That is wrong. We get questions all the time as teachers, does this vaccine really work? We should be able to say based on science, it's been proven that the vaccine is efficient at minimizing the risk of contracting the virus, so the safest way to avoid COVID is to be vaccinated. They can't even say that.”

Asay said avoiding vaccine talk in schools is aimed at placating anti-vax, anti-science groups, and teachers he represents don’t feel safe.

School district officials and board members did not respond to requests for comment for this report.

According to the state health department, 308 Utahns died of COVID in November, surpassing October’s death toll of 294. It also reports that in the past month, unvaccinated people were 13 times more likely to die of COVID than vaccinated people who contracted the virus.

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Michelle, who joined KPCW in 2021, arrived in Utah in 2018 by way of Massachusetts, where the skiing was icy and the mosquitoes formidable. A former daily newspaper reporter and editor (at the Visalia Times-Delta in CA) and columnist (at The Cohasset Mariner in MA), Michelle has been a writer and editor for decades. She holds a journalism degree from CSU Fresno and has worked as a journalist, freelance writer and web content creator, reporting extensively on education and youth along with general assignment and breaking news.