Grassroots group Safe Utah Schools organized a rally Wednesday afternoon in front of the Park City School District building just before the school board held its meeting in an effort to raise community awareness of the safety concerns teachers have with crowded classrooms and COVID-19 mitigation efforts in schools.
About 100 people, including teachers and other concerned citizens, gathered along Kearns Boulevard soliciting honks and waves from passing vehicles.
According to the district, about 90% of Park City’s 5,000 students are back in class. While many elementary classrooms are below 23 students, that’s not the case in the junior high and high school classrooms. Some teachers have up to 35 students at a time, and they’re concerned about being able to maintain proper social distancing during the five-day-a-week schedule in the middle of a pandemic.
Wendy Moss is the founder of Safe Utah Schools. The group came together after Gov. Gary Herbert shut Utah schools down in mid-March. They’ve been following school district opening plans throughout the state and publishing the dates and times of their meetings. Then, they began to collect COVID-19 infection rate data, publishing maps by zip code.
Moss has organized a lot of rallies, she says, and through the summer, Summit County was running at less than a 3% infection rate per 100,000 people. But last week, a large birthday party caused Summit County’s rate to rocket to four times that much.
“I know that they have alternative plans for if they decide it’s unsafe, but I'm not sure where the unsafe threshold is if the whole entire county went from 2.9% to 12 percent,” she said.
Moss says the World Health Organization guidelines suggest the safe spot is a figure below 5% in combination with social distancing of at least six feet, improved ventilation, and face coverings. She says she organized the rally out of concern for teachers who, because class sizes are so big and school is in person five days a week, can’t meet the WHO guidelines.
“We’ve done a lot of these rallies and you get in a lot of members of the community and the school board and they speak really well, and they have good points pushing for data in science,” she said. “Then the school board doesn't change anything. So, I wasn't expecting anything to change but what I would love would be for the district to say, you know, ‘yeah, this is really high, we have this surge in cases. It's kind of scary, let's put everyone online until our numbers go down.’”
Jen Minson was a Park City School District employee for 10 years until Monday, when she resigned. She attended the rally Wednesday and says she doesn’t think the current situation is safe for teachers, students, and staff.
“I don’t believe starting school on Thursday was prudent,” she said. “I don't think we were ready. I went to school Thursday hoping that was going to be much better than I had imagined. Our building was down seven staff members before school started. We’re down classroom teachers. We’re down aides. I do know that our enrollment was so much higher than I've ever started the first day of school. When I left school on Monday there were, I believe, over 70 new kids on the roster.”
Susan Kralick, also at the rally, has grandchildren in the school district, and she is concerned about the safety of her family and her own vulnerability because she is in a higher-risk group.
“Social distancing isn’t being maintained,” Kralick said. “No accommodation for ventilation in the classrooms. No consistent social distancing etc. etc. I'm really proud of the teachers who are out here today, many of them as that young woman indicated are afraid of being intimidated, that they shouldn't speak out for fear of losing their jobs. This is still America I think and it's a sad thing that it's come to this. But they're not being listened to. This has been going on all summer long. It could have been averted.”
Parent Wendy Lawrence says she wants to find a way to creatively support the teachers, students, and the entire community.
“It sounds like it might have been an overwhelming start so do we need to pause a little bit,” she asked. “Could we help? What resources can we bring in? If we're a community, how do we support everybody? Right now the whole community is not on the same page, so how do we find common ground and go forward so everyone is safe, cared for? And our schools maybe end up even better.”
Teachers attending wore red apparel. None were willing to speak on the record on their concern with the contract negotiations, job preservation, and freedom of speech on school property.