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Add a mask to the pencils and notebooks on that back-to-school shopping list, as Gov. Gary Herbert has ordered all K-12 schools in Utah to require face coverings to fend off the coronavirus.
The mask order covers anyone — students, teachers, staff and visitors — in a school building or on school buses in all 41 of the state’s school districts and public charters when the new school year begins in August, Herbert said during the state’s weekly COVID-19 media briefing.
“We certainly want to make sure they have whatever’s necessary to have a safe environment where they can learn,” Herbert said Thursday.
The Republican leader, however, declined to expand a mask-wearing mandate to everyone in Utah. “At this time, I choose not to make this a [statewide] mandate,” Herbert said.
Instead, Herbert made a challenge to Utahns: Reduce the rolling seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases to below 500 by Aug. 1 — the month when classes will start. As of Thursday, the average was at 583.71 new cases per day. And the state saw 601 new cases, bringing the total to 27,356 Utahns who have contracted the virus, with 205 deaths.
“I’m going to give the people of Utah the opportunity to show what kind of people they are,” he said.
If the numbers don’t improve, though, he said he may have to reinstate other restrictions, including possibly moving the state back to the “orange” or moderate risk level. Much of Utah remains in the “yellow,” lower-risk category.
Even with stopping short of a statewide order, though, some educators cheered the decision and thanked Herbert for prioritizing their safety.
JoAnne Brown, who teaches science at Olympus Junior High School, said she had been worried about returning to the classroom this fall. Brown is a two-time cancer survivor and has asthma, which puts her at higher risk for getting seriously sick from the virus.
“I feel a lot better with the face mask requirement,” she said Thursday, noting that she’ll have 30 students in her class.
Her district, she added, has told teachers that they have to return to the classroom “in person and on-site” — or take a year off without pay. And not working was not an option for her.
“We’re in no-win situation,” she said. “But masks are at least a good start.”
Michael McDonough said he’s been getting a lot of emails from teachers who were also nervous to go back without masks on kids. He splits his time between teaching at Woodstock Elementary and working at the Granite Education Association office, and is relieved by the governor’s decision.
“I was happy to see [it],” he said.
‘A welcome step’ for schools
Herbert said all school districts in Utah must develop a plan, “with some flexibility,” to support mask wearing. He acknowledged it will be more difficult to get younger grades, such as kindergarteners, to wear masks. So educators, he added, will be asked to find the best ways to carry out the order.
Utah’s K-12 schools are set to reopen this fall under guidelines issued by the state board of education. Each district must offer ways to accommodate students with online learning if they are in high-risk groups (who could get more sick if they catch the virus) or are uncomfortable returning to the classroom. Also, there are strict requirements for social distancing and sanitation.
Desks should be spaced at least 6 feet apart, state leaders say, something that is not always feasible with Utah’s large class sizes, so the state board’s written guidelines suggest students sit “as far apart as reasonably possible.”
Masks are intended to help slow the spread of the virus — as well as hopefully ensure that schools don’t have to shut down again.
The Utah Education Association supports the move, calling it “a welcome step in the right direction.” That came after the teachers union had called Wednesday for stricter requirements to protect educators and staff.
“I’m hearing from teachers all around the state who are fearful their school district plans don’t go far enough to protect them and their students,” UEA President Heidi Matthews had said. “Some plans go into great detail about student health and safety but fall short in adequately addressing protections for school employees.”
She was backed, as well, by the leader of the nation’s largest teachers union, a Utah teacher.
Lily Eskelsen García, who leads the National Education Association, had slammed President Donald Trump earlier this week for his demand that all schools reopen this fall, daring him to “sit in a class of 39 sixth graders and breathe that air” without protective gear. She called on every state to ignore Trump and do what’s best for their students and what they can to keep those in schools safe.
One of her requests was a face mask requirement, along with the UEA.
Some teachers in Utah say while they like the mandate for K-12, it’s not enough to make sure that schools are able to remain open — and it raises other concerns.
Chelsie Acosta, a health teacher at Glendale Middle School, said her biggest questions are whether students will have to buy their own masks and what will happen for those who can’t afford them. “It seems like an easy fix, but it’s not,” she said.
She has also been considering whether to quit her teaching job before the fall because of her anxiety over returning to the classroom. She lost her mother earlier this year and is now the primary caretaker for her 72-year-old father. Acosta doesn’t want to catch the virus in the classroom and carry it to him.
“It’s scary as hell,” she said, “even with masks.”
Deborah Gatrell also believes that masks should only be seen as the first step to helping schools.
She teaches at Hunter High School, which is in West Valley City. Like Glendale, that area has been particularly hard hit by the virus. She wants the state to focus on getting the virus under control, overall, first. And then, she said, districts should focus on getting enough cleaning supplies and masks for everyone.
Younger students may not be as badly impacted if they catch it, but teachers, especially those who are older, are more susceptible.
“There’s been so much talk about kids not getting it and not transmitting it, but they do,” she said. “And if you want to be back in school, you have to have staff to run it.”
New case totals remain high
The Utah Department of Health reported 601 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, coming after Utah hit a one-day record for new cases, with 722, the day before.
UDOH also reported that four more Utahns have died from COVID-19, bringing the overall death toll to 205 people. All four people — a Washington County woman between the ages of 65 and 84, a Salt Lake County woman between 25 and 44, a Salt Lake County man between 45 and 64, and a San Juan County man between 45 and 64 — were hospitalized when they died.
There were 22 new hospitalizations reported Thursday, with 177 still in the hospital as of Wednesday — the lowest that number has been in 13 days. During the pandemic, 1,700 Utahns have been in the hospital, UDOH reported.
The rolling average of new cases shows “the trend is going in the wrong direction,” Herbert said. If the rolling average were to rise to 800, that would be “dangerously close to the edge of the cliff,” Herbert said, and he might have to make some dire decisions, including a statewide mask mandate or bringing back economic and health care restrictions — such as banning elective surgeries.
The current positive rate of tests is 9.9%, said the state’s epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn.
Herbert said he hopes people will take up the challenge to reduce the spread of the virus, “not because government is compelling us to do it, but because it’s the right thing to do. … We care about each other. We’ve demonstrated that in times past. We need to demonstrate that same kind of caring today.”
The state will offer $1 million in grants to produce public-service announcements to encourage mask use, Herbert said. “We’re saying, ‘We’re at this crossroads. We’re at a place where we can control our destiny, and not rely on a mandate.‘”
Herbert has resisted calls for a statewide mandate for mask wearing, though, and leaders of the Republican-dominated Utah Legislature announced this week that they also oppose such a requirement.
Instead, the governor has approved mask orders at the local level, in Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties, and in Springdale, outside Zion National Park. Herbert also has ordered the wearing of masks in all state-run buildings, including liquor stores and on college campuses.
Clergy, health care professionals and business leaders have all urged Utahns to wear masks, Herbert said.
The governor also said he now believes that the state made a mistake in its planning for coronavirus restrictions, in that “we identified by the four-color coding, of red, then orange, then yellow, then green — we identified them by risk. I think that’s given us misinformation. … What people thought when they heard ‘yellow’ is, ‘Ah, low risk.’ We’ve probably dropped our guard a bit, and gotten a little complacent.”
Most of Utah remains in the “yellow” category, with reduced restrictions on public gatherings and business openings. Salt Lake City remains in the “orange” category. Ten rural Utah counties, where social distancing comes naturally because of sparse populations in a lot of acreage, are in the “green” category.
Herbert said that if needed, he may move areas back to stricter controls.
At Thursday’s news conference, Dunn also announced the state’s Healthy Together app will stop using GPS and Bluetooth location tracking. The feature was not popular, she said, and therefore not helpful in following the spread of the coronavirus.