Utah governor lets Salt Lake City schools return in person, calls Utah County protesters ‘foolish'

(Kristin Murphy | Deseret News, pool) Gov. Gary Herbert holds up a face mask as he announces face masks will be provided to K-12 students as masks are required for school during a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 16, 2020.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.

Gov. Gary Herbert has rewritten the state’s coronavirus risk levels so that Salt Lake City schools will now be able to welcome students back this fall — joining all other K-12 districts in Utah.

Salt Lake City School District had previously been the only one not allowed to reopen because the capital city remains in the “orange,” or moderate, risk status for the virus. At that level, classes were supposed to continue online.

But at a Thursday news conference, Herbert announced: “We’re going to make a change to the ‘orange’ guidelines for the Salt Lake City School District, so they also can open up and have the same opportunities as the other schools in the county” and the state.

Everywhere else has shifted to the lower risk designations of “yellow” or “green.”

The modification for Salt Lake City came one day after more than 100 parents and students rallied outside the district’s office, pleading to return to in-person instruction next month. They held signs that said, “We love school” and “Don’t leave us behind.” And many came dressed in their sports team uniforms and school colors.

“No one is learning online,” said one mother. “Kids are getting lost,” she said, since classrooms shut down in the spring with the pandemic.

Several also pointed out that other schools, just three miles away in neighboring districts outside the capital, are allowed to open. Some worried that if students weren’t able to return, it could jeopardize their chances for both academic and athletic scholarships.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parents and students within the Salt Lake City School District rally for K-12 students to return in-person to school this fall, July 15, 2020.

Herbert acknowledged that Thursday with his decision, saying “we cannot afford to have [schools] closed.” He didn’t say whether other provisions under “orange” would also change.

The district said, though, said it now looks forward to returning. “We are glad to have an opportunity to look at options that might better serve our students,” said spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin. “This gives us options.”

The district had previously drafted two plans: one for operating in “orange” online and another if it was moved to “yellow,” with students coming in for in-person classes one or two days a week. Chatwin said with the governor’s change, the school board will reexamine those and may make further changes, especially with so many parents wanting their kids back at school and with many working families needing a place for their children during the day.

Herbert has asked all districts to draft plans on reopening by Aug. 1, with options for those wanting to return as well as those who may want to continue remote learning from home.

The governor had earlier ordered all schools in the state to reopen this fall with the expectation that cases of the virus would have slowed by August. They continue to climb across the state, though, with nearly 32,000 confirmed cases now — which is part of why, he added, “we aren’t quite there yet” to move Salt Lake City out of the “orange” risk level.

In response to concerns over that spike, Herbert last week issued a mandate requiring all students and staff to wear a face mask when they do return to the classroom.

“Masks will be provided for all of our students, so that they will have access to face coverings when they come to school,” he said Thursday.

The requirement was largely met with applause from teachers and parents who say they feel it will keep those inside schools safe and slow the spread of the virus. And those in Salt Lake City rallying to get back to in-person teaching pledged to abide by the mandate, taking precautions and wearing masks.

But some have since protested. In Utah County, more than 150 residents rallied against the mandate Wednesday at a separate protest, saying they should have the choice of whether their kids wear a mask or not. One dad said he’d pull his children out of school if the state doesn’t lift its edict. A mom called the rule “strenuous and overbearing and dystopian.” Others suggested it trampled on their constitutional rights.

Demonstrators there carried posters that read “Don’t smother the children” and “Let kids be kids. No masks!” And they crammed into a small boardroom to speak.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Angry residents react when the Utah County Commission meeting was adjourned before it even started. The group protesting against masks being required in schools removed the social distancing tape on the chairs and filled the Utah County Commission room to over flowing, prompting Commissioner Tanner Ainge to call for a vote to adjourn the meeting in Provo, on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

Herbert responded to the concerns raised at that meeting, saying some of them — such as the suggestion that wearing a mask causes a person to breathe in carbon dioxide — are false. Others, he added, “were puzzling.” He challenged the claim some residents made that tech billionaire Bill Gates manufactured the virus. But, he said, he sympathizes with those wanting local control.

“We understand people have differing points of view,” he said. “The fact that it’s being mandated is controversial for some. … I hope that people would show regard, though, for the experts in the field of medicine.”

The governor said he was mostly disappointed to see such a large crowd packed together and acting against health recommendations with “almost a mob mentality.”

“The experts will tell us that is kind of a foolish action,” he added. “Who knows who has the coronavirus?”

He had Dr. Tom Miller, chief medical officer for University of Utah Health, speak to dispel some of the rumors Thursday. And both encouraged masks as a way to slow the spread of the virus.

They urged parents and students to be safe — not because the government mandates it, but to protect themselves and others so that things can open up quicker and “we can get the economy back to normal.”

Lexi Cunningham, director of the Utah Superintendents Association, said while masks will be part of the plan for each school district, they will also come up with individual guidance to best accommodate their students. “Every district and every school is different in how they have addressed building their plan,” she added.

Some districts are looking at blended models of online and in-person teaching. One district has had 13 focus groups to get input, she said. Hygiene and sanitation is also a big focus for all. And many are building in leniency for school attendance so that kids won’t feel pressured to come in when they’re sick.

The Utah Board of Education has put out additional recommendations, including that desks be spaced at least 6 feet apart, something that is not always feasible with Utah’s large class sizes. So it suggests students sit “as far apart as reasonably possible.”

The most important thing, Cunningham said, is “focusing on student and staff safety.”

Requiring masks is intended to help slow the spread of the virus — as well as hopefully ensure that schools don’t have to shut down again. Herbert added that there will be exceptions for young students and those with disabilities.

But, he stressed, “We’re not asking too much.”