Utah K-12 schools dismissed for a two-week ‘soft closure’ due to coronavirus

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sydnee Dickson, superintendent of public instruction in Utah, is joined on Friday, March 13, 2020, by Gov. Gary Herbert, left, and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, as they announced a "soft closure" of all Utah K-12 public schools for the next two weeks, effective Monday, in the ongoing effort to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.

Editor’s note: The Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here.

All public K-12 schools in Utah will be dismissed for two weeks under a “soft closure” — starting Monday — in the hopes of preventing a major outbreak of the coronavirus.

Classes will continue online, and with printed packets or other assignments. Districts will remain open for students who need a meal or a safe place to go. And, by March 27, Gov. Gary Herbert will reassess if the shutdown needs to go on longer.

“This is prudent,” he said at a late Friday news conference. “We want to make sure that we have safe environments for our kids to learn.”

The major announcement came just one day after the state had said it wouldn’t close classrooms unless there was “an imminent threat.” But even with six cases of the virus in Utah and no confirmed community spread, Herbert said now was the time to take precautions before the schools here turn into petri dishes of infection.

Over the past 24 hours, parents had also flooded both the governor’s office and the Utah Board of Education with angry calls, questioning why classes weren’t being canceled when all of the universities in the state have shuttered their campuses. Hundreds kept their students home from school Friday in frustration. One Utah County mom said, “I can’t keep waiting for people to take control and protect my children.”

The dismissal begins Monday — though school districts can choose to cancel classes that day and Tuesday in order to give teachers time to prepare for the change. All schools, though, are expected to resume at the latest by Wednesday.

Parents will receive an email about their district’s plans, including staggered times for students to pick up materials, if needed, while avoiding large gatherings. Granite and Salt Lake City school districts, for instance, are planning to resume via the internet Wednesday.

Any spring breaks scheduled during that period — which most school districts have on the calendar — will continue as planned. Districts will not have to extend their online learning to a third week to make up for it, clarified Mark Peterson, spokesman for the state Board of Education.

And the time that districts take to prepare for the change also will not have to be made up at a later date; the board is currently working to waive the requirement this year that schools hold class for 180 days, per state code.

The point, Herbert said, is to limit big, in-person interactions and slow the spread of the virus through social distancing. The previous day, he called for a ban on all meetings with more than 100 people. His decision impacts roughly 660,000 students statewide.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert, right, is joined by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox as they speak at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 13, 2020, where he ordered a "soft closure" of all Utah K-12 schools for the next two weeks, effective Monday, in the ongoing effort to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.

At the news conference Friday, several joked that the time out of class isn’t an excuse for kids to go out with a big group of friends — but it doesn’t mean they can’t hang out with a few and play video games, added Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who’s leading the state’s coronavirus task force.

“If we’re putting kids together in a school, that’s 1,300 kids and it’s a large group," Cox said. "If we’re putting kids together in a classroom, that’s 30 kids and it’s a large group. We’re not quarantining every child in the state of Utah. We’re just avoiding these mass gatherings.”

Cox said, too, that the measures are not because the situation in Utah is bad — but instead are being put in place to try to ensure that it doesn’t get bad and overwhelm the health care system. "The action we take today has the ability to save many, many lives here,” he said.

The soft closure will be reevaluated after two weeks, and the state will determine whether classes will return to being held in person or if Utah schools will close indefinitely.

Sydnee Dickson, the state superintendent over public K-12 education, said during the dismissal, schools will still be open and some staff will be there during regular hours. That way, any student who needs to come in for the day can — depending on the district — including those with disabilities or who need tutoring in small groups. But it’s not meant for child care.

Students who rely on getting meals at school will also be able to come in and pick up “grab-and-go” food for breakfasts and lunches. Granite and Salt Lake districts, though, have advised students not to stay there to eat as there will be no direct supervision.

And those who need computers or hotspots for Wi-Fi can check them out to do their homework. Dickson had previously said Thursday that not all of the state’s public schools are prepared to move to a digital format for instruction.

“We understand that this two-week dismissal is going to be rough for some,” Dickson added on Friday, but she feels it’s the best compromise between those who wanted to shut down schools for safety and those who need them to stay open to access resources.

In the meantime, sports, club meetings and school dances will be postponed or canceled. Graduation ceremonies are in question. And child care and community centers on campus were closed.

The window for end-of-the-year testing typically opens mid-March. Dickson said it will be extended through June this year so every student has enough time to complete the assessments.

“We’re not ending the school year by any means,” she added.

Herbert said the move doesn’t mean that “the government has the answers to every issue.” He advised that parents and the community “have responsibility,” too, to make their own calls and supervise their children during the pandemic.

The soft closure applies to the state’s 41 public school districts and 116 charters, where all employees will continue to work and be paid — regardless of their position. Private schools can still chose whether or not to hold classes; the Catholic Diocese declared, for instance, that its facilities would not.

Prior to the announcement, Murray School District in Salt Lake County was the only public closure. The district said Thursday that it became "aware of potential direct contact exposure to COVID-19” at one of its 10 schools. For privacy reasons it wouldn’t specify where the contact occurred or whether it came from one of the Utahns diagnosed with the coronavirus. No teachers or students, the district said, are exhibiting symptoms.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nearly empty school buses get ready to leave Murray High School after 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."

The decisions surrounding schools have fueled a lot of anxiety among parents, teachers and students. Utah County mother Courtney Kendrick kept her four kids home from school Friday. More than anything, it was a precaution.

Kendrick didn’t think her kids — who attend classes in Provo School District — were at risk of contracting the virus, but she wanted to show the district and the state that she takes the concern of spread seriously and pleaded for them to shut their doors.

One of her daughters, Kendrick said, has been so anxious about the coronavirus that she’s washed her hands until her skin is raw.

Meanwhile, students at East High School in Salt Lake City walked out of class Friday morning to protest before the dismissal was announced. They shouted, “Roses are red, violets are blue. If I get infected, I’m going to sue you.” And at West High, early morning announcements noted that the SAT test on Saturday was canceled and club meetings would not be held.

Hundreds of students stayed home, too, throughout the state. A handful of districts said they wouldn’t count the absences as unexcused. But many parents said they were angry and frustrated that school was even still being held and questioned whether initially waiting for an “imminent threat” was really the right call.

Sarah Collett sent her son to junior high and her daughter to high school Friday morning, but kept home her two kids who are in elementary school. She said she trusts her school and superintendent in Nebo School District, but she worried the state wasn’t giving them enough information to make good decisions about whether to close.

“I 100% advocate for canceling school,” Collett added. “I know that’s an extreme measure. But I would so much rather prevent outbreak than take the risk. If we cancel schools and the coronavirus doesn’t hit Utah very hard, then that was worth it.”

Many high schools in the state have thousands of students walking through hallways at the same time between classes. And elementary schools here have hundreds of kids eating lunch or playing at recess together.

Nick Bielaczyc, who teaches history at East High School, said he was originally baffled by the call to keep public schools open. In his first-period class, 12 kids were absent. And he estimates that potentially up to half of the students at the school were out Friday.

But that still left 1,000 to 1,500 people there. “I’m angry,” Bielaczyc said. “We’re putting a very large population at risk.”

The teacher added that he didn’t have any sanitizer or wipes to clean his classroom and 200 kids walk in there each day. He’s glad that the state has since moved forward with closing schools and sending students home.

He added: “We’ve never had to prepare for this contingency.”