Robert Gehrke: Utah teachers are being put in an impossible spot

Robert Gehrke

Jennifer Hinchman has spent 31 years in the classroom and planned to teach second grade at William Penn Elementary for three or four more years. But facing the coronavirus risk, her age and all the unanswered questions, she sat down last week with her husband and told him she didn’t think she would return.

“It’s not worth it to go back at this point and die, quite frankly,” she told me Tuesday. “There’s all sorts of nonsense decision-making going on that doesn’t have anything to do with realistic data.”

She considered joining the group of online-only teachers, but said when forced to teach online in the spring, she found it hard to get second graders to read remotely. She didn’t like it.

“I have the option, which is super lucky, because most teachers can’t. I don’t have to go back to face the fire, but a lot of my friends aren’t so lucky,” she said. “It’s just so, so bad. I really feel bad. I feel like I abandoned my team and I’m selfish and I’m really just sad. I wasn’t ready to do this.”

Hinchman shouldn’t feel guilty. Nor is she alone. In the Canyons School District, for example, 15 teachers have already notified the district they won’t be back when school resumes, and more are expected to follow before the 4 p.m. deadline Thursday.

It’s an unenviable position to have to balance a career they love against uncertain risks to their health. A quarter of teachers fall into a high-risk category, either because of their age or health conditions.

My colleague, Andy Larsen, wrote another terrific explainer of the science surrounding school openings last week, and the evidence seems clear that young children are less likely to contract COVID-19, may be less likely to spread it, and are unlikely to die from it.

But less likely doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, just that there are slightly better odds. Another study found that older kids are just as likely to spread the disease as adults.

Salt Lake County has had nearly 2,500 confirmed cases in people under 19 years of age. Young people do get the disease — and that’s before those young people are spending 30 hours a week crammed into a classroom with dozens of other potential carriers.

And school districts have proven unwilling to take the most effective step — staggering classes — to reduce the risk.

Thanks to a legacy of skimping on education, Utah has the nation’s most crowded classes, and that makes social distancing practically impossible.

“There is not a district in the state that will be able to comply with distancing,” Canyons School Superintendent Rick Robins said at a recent board meeting. “There is no way physically, in the parameters of our classroom, to achieve 6-foot distancing with all students. … That’s the reality. We cannot achieve physical distancing in the way our schools are built, and have been built.”

Salt Lake City School District’s solution is to stagger classes. Students in Group A will attend Monday and Thursday, students in Group B on Tuesday and Friday, with Wednesday as an online day or teacher support. They’ll have online lessons when they’re not physically in school.

The hybrid model is not perfect — without question it burdens working parents who can’t stay home two or three days a week, and it’s more work for teachers — but realistically it’s the only way to effectively socially distance. Other districts have rejected it, opting for a typical schedule in decidedly atypical times, and as you’d expect that leaves some educators concerned.

“I’m going to go back, but I am fearful of the risk at a full schedule,” said Matthew Schilling, a social studies teacher at Alta High School, whose classes can have as many as 40 students. Even if 30% opt for online education — which districts appear to be assuming — it’s too many to safely distance.

Schilling wrote a letter to Canyons district leaders last week that now has the backing for 41 teachers asking for a staggered schedule. Without it, schools can’t possibly meet the recommended guidelines from a study by Leavitt Partners or those by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re just worried overall about the risk to so many different people,” Schilling said. “We’d love to have those questions answered to start. … Right now, the plans are not meeting the guidelines.”

There are other blind spots in the district plans I’ve looked at that need to be addressed.

When teachers get sick — and they will — schools are going to need substitutes, but who will risk going into a classroom without any health benefits in exchange for about a hundred bucks a day? Part-time paraprofessionals are in the same boat, taking on the physical risk of being in the classroom and the financial risk of getting stuck with the medical bills.

The state guidelines call for intensive cleaning protocols, but there appears to be no move so far to hire additional custodial staff. Granite District is at least considering it, spokesman Ben Horsely said in a web chat for parents Tuesday. Until then, that duty will fall to the teachers and bus drivers.

And there’s no clear plan in the state guidelines or the district plans on how to address special education classes. The district and state plans only say accommodations will be made, seemingly leaving it to the teachers to figure out.

Generally speaking, I think we all want Utah kids back in the classrooms as soon as it is safe for them and their teachers. Things are moving quickly to meet the arbitrary, self-imposed Aug. 24 deadline (although Salt Lake pushed its start date to Sept. 8 on Tuesday), even as the ground under us is moving.

As important as it is for kids to be in school, it’s more important that we get this right, even if it means taking time to answer all of the hard questions before we subject our teachers and kids to a potentially perilous situation.