SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah’s largest teachers union called Tuesday for schools to delay reopening and start the school year with online classes, citing safety concerns for students and teachers.
The Utah Education Association called for state leaders to temporarily resume distance learning until COVID-19 cases further decline. The union said school districts should seek input from educators and local health authorities before moving forward with any reopening plans.
“Current school district plans, no matter how robust, simply cannot sufficiently ensure the health and safety of our students, educators and families in communities where the virus continues to spread unchecked,” union President Heidi Matthews said.
The union urged state officials to base decisions related to school reopening on “scientific evidence and advice” and to ensure that students and educators have access to proper personal protective equipment.
Anna Lehndart, Gov. Gary Herbert’s communications director, said ensuring that schools are safe for teachers and students before they return to the classroom is crucial.
“We must strike a careful balance, and as anxious as we are to get students back to school, we must be cautious about how and when we do so,” Lehndart said. “The advice of both medical experts and our teachers will be vital in adjusting and finalizing these plans.”
State Board of Education spokesperson Mark Peterson said it is up to school districts and charter schools to determine when schools reopen.
“The Utah State Board of Education expects every district and charter school to engage with their teachers, staff, and parents to do what is best for students in their schools and that includes health, safety, and an equitable education,” Peterson said.
In cities such as Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston, some of the nation’s largest public school districts are starting the school year online. For weeks, President Donald Trump has pressed for a full reopening of the nation’s schools and threatened to withhold future virus relief funds from schools that fail to reopen.
Earlier this month, Gov. Gary Herbert announced Utah will require masks in schools, but face coverings remain contentious in the Republican-led state. A public meeting in Utah County was abruptly ended when dozens of people pushing for an exemption to the school mask requirement packed the room.
A group of over 150 educators rallied outside the Utah Capitol building last week to call for stronger protections against the coronavirus for schools when they reopen this fall. Some held signs that read, “I can teach from a distance but not from a casket” and “don’t kill us.”
More than 38,000 cases of the virus have been reported in Utah, and over 280 people have died, according to state data. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
Sophia 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 under-covered issues.