Early in July, Governor Gary Herbert issued a mandatory mask mandate for students, teachers and staff as part of the return to school COVID-19 protocol. School districts were required to submit a school opening plan to the state by August 1. As the back to school date draws closer, concerns persist about the risk/benefit of opening schools in the middle of a pandemic.
The Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, recently issued a statement questioning the safety of opening schools to in-person learning specifically in areas around the state that are experiencing spikes in coronavirus cases. UEA President Heidi Mathews, representing the union members, says they want the governor to order a delay in school openings in those highly impacted areas. She says a COVID-19 risk assessment project from Georgia Tech outlines which Utah Counties can safely open schools now. Summit County is identified at an 86% risk level. Wasatch County is 79%.
Mathews says educators are concerned the district won’t use a standardized scientific method for deciding if in-person school is safe for students and teachers.
“It is simply a completion of a plan from a local district that is submitted to the State Board of Education just for assurances only, but no approval process and we believe that there should be that approval process that comes with some compliance assurances and a process to raise concerns without fear of reprisal. And then finally teachers need and deserve the same rights as any other employees about safe working conditions, clarity of workload, what’s covered leave when exposed to an illness, etc.”
Utah State Superintendent Sydnee Dixon says a manual has been developed to help parents, students, teachers and staff with expectations for a safe return to school. The manual can be found on https://coronavirus.utah.gov and on the state board of education website. She says people should read the entire manual as a helpful resource.
“We are so appreciative of the state and local health departments who have been working throughout the summer and even into spring to meet with superintendents and charter directors to help them understand the ramifications on schools of some of these health conditions. The manual that Dr. Dunn described outlines many of the questions that we've been asked and as stated those situations around quarantine, testing, site conditions for teachers, what to do around activities in athletics, what a cluster looks like.”
Mathews says the manual lacks mandated protocols for what schools should do when cases are identified.
“It does not indicate any mandates or absolutes. There's a lot of recommendations. There's a lot of shoulds, but in terms of mandates or compliance expectations, those are really lacking. And finally, while it does address some educator rights, it simply doesn't go far enough because educator rights refers to how to do it with things like privacy and that kind of thing. And it's really kind of conflicting--this is what you should do when you are exposed to the virus.”
Mathews is concerned about the modified quarantine recommendation, which she says doesn’t go far enough to keep teachers and students who have been exposed to the virus from spreading it to others.
“And teachers, you should quarantine but you know if there's not a sub available for a continuation of quality learning for the kids, then you need to go back to school. And that is really concerning. We were lacking substitutes before the pandemic and our sub pool consists largely of retired educators who are older.”
The UEA is asking the governor to delay school openings and hold online classes in those counties identified with high case counts. She says the rush to open by the first day of school is an unacceptable risk for students and teachers.
Park City School District Superintendent Jill Gildea, in an email, states reopening schedules and dates will depend on the trajectory of the COVID-19 virus. The current case counts in Summit County point to reopening as planned.
Remote classes will be offered for those students who elect to not return in person. Gildea says Park City’s small class sizes will make monitoring the illness and tracking cases easier. She said just one part-time teacher has announced they will not be returning this fall due to concerns about the virus.
Wasatch School District did not respond to a request for comment.