Utah’s colleges and universities move classes online — and a K-12 district will close — as a precaution against coronavirus

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A few remaining students exit Murray High School at the final bell on Thursday, March 12, 2020, after it was announced earlier in the day that the Murray School District in Salt Lake County will close "until further notice."

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In the hopes of staving off a coronavirus outbreak, all of Utah’s public and private universities will shut down their campuses and move most classes online. And, as a sign of more to come for K-12, Murray School District in Salt Lake County has closed completely “until further notice.”

It’s a staggering response from the education community here as both the virus and concerns about it spread nationwide — with schools increasingly being thought of as a hotspot for infection.

In Utah, where there are five cases but no community spread, Gov. Gary Herbert said the unprecedented precautions are the best way to protect students and staff, even if it seems premature. The measures will be reassessed in a few weeks, but currently graduation ceremonies everywhere are on hold.

“Some think we’re pulling the trigger too early,” Herbert acknowledged during an hourlong news conference Thursday afternoon announcing the steps for schools. “But it’s better for us to be too early than too late. Things could possibly get worse.”

For now, the decision to close K-12 schools will be left to each district or charter. And Murray School District was the first to say it would shutter.

The district’s announcement raised major concerns, coming after it said it became "aware of potential direct contact exposure to COVID-19” at one of its 10 schools. It decided to shut down all classes as a precaution, the district wrote in an alert sent to families Thursday morning, but for privacy reasons it wouldn’t specify where the contact occurred.

It’s not clear when the exposure happened, said district spokesman Doug Perry; “It could have been days or weeks.” He also couldn’t say whether it was from one of the five Utahns diagnosed with the coronavirus.

No teachers or students, the district said, are exhibiting symptoms. “However, because we are concerned about the health and safety of our students and staff, we are exercising an abundance of caution,” its alert said.

All students have laptops in the district — a rarity in Utah — and will continue their class work online.

During the news conference at the Capitol, Sydnee Dickson, the state superintendent who oversees all public K-12 education, urged schools not to shutter “out of anxiety or fear.” She asked districts to coordinate instead with local health officials and make a decision only when there’s “an imminent threat.”

“We don’t take the idea of closing schools lightly,” she added.

In the meantime, she’s asking that all school-related travel scheduled for out-of-state be canceled and any large events be postponed, including sports games, club competitions and assemblies. That’s in accordance with the governor’s call to restrict gatherings of more than 100 people — though he said it didn’t apply to schools.

Dickson noted that the state’s public schools aren’t prepared to move online. “We’re not capable of a full transition statewide for K-12 at this time," she said.

Transitioning all classes to computers may come shortly. But, she added, that will need to be weighed against the concerns that some families have in accessing Wi-Fi, providing child care and getting food for their kids. Already the Utah Board of Education has applied for federal grants to continue serving meals to students who rely on them in the case of a virus outbreak. Murray District said it’s currently able to provide sack lunches for its nearly 7,000 kids.

In the meantime, Dickson asked schools to consider staggering recesses, lunches and start and end times to avoid large gatherings.

Several districts sent out notices to students Thursday, saying they wouldn’t close, for the time being, but would implement extra safety precautions. Tooele School District has cancelled all extracurriculars. Provo School District announced it would hold half days on Monday and Tuesday. Salt Lake City School District will add additional sanitation stations.

The Catholic Diocese also announced it would be closing its private schools until March 31.

Some parents are frustrated with the decision to shut down colleges but not public elementary, junior high and high schools. Many high schools in the state have thousands of students walking through hallways at the same time between classes — far exceeding the governor’s recommendation for mass gatherings.

For both K-12, though, and higher education, all graduation ceremonies for this spring are on hold. Brigham Young University in Provo is the only place where those have been definitively cancelled.

The private religious school announced that it would follow the other universities in the state in closing its campus and moving classes online, starting Wednesday, along with its partner institution, LDS Business College. The other major private college in the state, Westminster, will also end face-to-face instruction until at least March 27.

Meanwhile, all eight public colleges in the state decided together to transition most classes online, said Melanie Heath, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education, which oversees the institutions.

It’s a remarkable move, closing campuses from Utah State University in Logan to Southern Utah University in Cedar City. And it impacts nearly 200,000 students among them all. The restrictions will apply to most classes, with exceptions for some that require an in-person format, such as labs or art performances.

“We want to do our part to slow the spread of this virus,” said Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah, during the news conference held at the state’s Emergency Operations Center.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert speaks at a news conference in the state's Emergency Operations Center on Thursday, March 12, 2020 addressing the current state of COVID-19 in Utah. Representatives from the Utah System of Higher Education, the Utah Board of Education, Utah Jazz, local health authorities and Utah Department of Health were also present.

Most courses at the University of Utah, Utah State and Weber State will move online next week — after canceling class Monday and Tuesday to give everyone time to prepare.

All classes will move online starting March 23 at Utah Valley University, Southern Utah University, Dixie State University and Salt Lake Community College. Snow College will continue classes through March 20, cancel classes March 30 and 31, and move to online classes starting April 1.

The schools are also doing their own combinations of limiting travel by staff and canceling campus or sporting events, saying the disruptions are preventive.

“We are working toward implementing actions rather than wishing we had been implementing more precautions,” Cockett said. “We hope to be able to continue with our core missions, but times have required us to look at other methods to do that.”

Because their campuses are so expansive and so public — with as many as 50,000 people on the biggest ones each day and lecture halls filled with as many as 200 students at a time — Herbert said they are particularly susceptible to the virus spreading.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns with the closures.

A few students said on social media that they struggle to learn when not in a classroom, and some seniors noted their disappointment in not getting to finish their last semester on campus. Others questioned whether they would get money back since tuition is meant to cover, in part, the use of a facility. And a handful said they’re worried about losing on-campus jobs, not being able to afford food and not having access to the internet at home.

Watkins said the U. is aware of the job concerns and is working on a solution. All of the schools have promised to keep dorms open so that students who live on campus will be allowed to stay in their housing and continue getting meals. The U. will continue running its food pantry. And some will not close their libraries, so there’s also a place for students who need access to computers.