The Utah Education Association met in an emergency meeting on Monday night to address concerns about opening Utah schools for in-person classes this fall.
The teacher advocacy organization is asking Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Board of Education to delay in-person school attendance in those areas where COVID-19 cases are surging.
UEA President Heidi Mathews says they came to the decision based on an evaluation of the rising COVID-19 case numbers and the concern that most districts throughout the state are not prepared to provide a safe work environment at this time.
“What are our rights as educators,” Mathews said. “That was something I have heard over and over from our people, wondering especially about workload. What does it mean if I’m teaching all day and then I have my online, how is that manageable? How do we get information about leave and how can we advocate for increasing that? What do we do when people have sick leave benefits but when they've just been exposed or when they're not symptomatic? How much did it cost all of you to be teaching remotely, and how much did you have to rely on having your home internet and your cell phones?”
Mathews received feedback from association members concerned about compliance and what the terminology means for safe COVID-19 hygiene and distancing guidelines. She says it’s unclear if COVID-19 mitigation practices are required or optional and that uncertainty puts everyone at risk.
“So, educator accommodation, educator rights, staffing and compliance,” she said. “The compliance part I've heard so much about. Just some real concerns over where does the buck stop? Is it the health department? Is it the governor? Is it at our local district?”
Mathews says many Utah school districts don’t have the money to properly ensure a safe in-person return to school. She points out that Utah schools are perennially underfunded and to add additional protocols and procedures to mitigate the spread of the disease would not be feasible.
“We’re calling on the governor to delay the opening of face-to-face schools, not stop teaching, not stop learning, not stop school, just delay the opening of the face to face schools in buildings until the virus is more under control, and that we have these safety protocols in place, which includes these accommodations, these workplace enforcements, compliance,” she said. “All of these district plans need to be approved by medical experts and not just any political reasons.”
Mathews says the rush to open amid rising virus rates puts students, educators and families at risk. She feels the best plan is to resume distance learning and reevaluate in-person options later in the fall as case numbers diminish. Before opening schools to in-person classes, she asks that state officials consider employee rights, workplace safety, and equitable learning opportunities for all students.