Some Utah parents and students are upset that schools will reopen this fall

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo ) The Highland Park Elementary PTA hosts a "teacher parade," on Friday, May 1, 2020, in Salt Lake City as teachers and staff drive along most of the school boundary streets to celebrate teachers and students during the coronavirus pandemic which closed down schools.

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Cynthia Hepworth is torn over whether to send her four boys back to the classroom when schools reopen this fall.

On the one hand, two of her sons have excelled since classes were moved online in March because of the pandemic. On the other, two have struggled to learn without face-to-face interaction with teachers, dropping from As to Cs and missing several assignments.

It doesn’t make sense to split them. So should she keep them all home to study where they’ll be safe? Or should she send them all to school so her two middle sons can earn better grades? But if she does, will they catch the coronavirus there, as she fears?

“I want my kids to go back, but I also feel nervous about it,” Hepworth said. “I just don’t know what I’d do if they got sick.”

Some Utah parents say they feel stuck making that choice now after Gov. Gary Herbert announced Wednesday that most K-12 schools and colleges in the state would be welcoming students again come August.

Many say they aren’t comfortable having their kid in a classroom with how the virus is spreading here — with 8,921 cases as of Thursday and more than 100 deaths — and no vaccine. Others say that with three months to go until school starts, it’s too soon to make a decision without knowing if there will be a late-summer surge in cases. A few worry about sons and daughters and staffers who are immunocompromised or at high risk of more serious illness if they contract the virus.

A lot agree: They are frustrated with the call.

“We don’t really know what’s the safest thing,” said mother Michelle Collier, of Orem. “We’re at a crossroads.”

The announcement on returning to classrooms comes just over two months after Utah first closed them to avoid spreading the virus and before some schools have finished the current academic year.

Herbert’s expectation, though, is that all will be able to reopen in the fall. Sport teams can resume practice now. And regular school activities — including graduations, clubs and assemblies — can carry on, the guidelines say.

There will, of course, be requirements for social distancing and sanitation. Hand-washing stations are to be set up around each school. And buildings will be cleaned regularly.

Herbert also is advising that desks be spaced 6 feet apart in classrooms to maintain social distancing. Where that’s not possible, especially with Utah’s large class sizes, he recommends wearing masks.

“Clearly,” he acknowledged, “parents aren’t going to want to send their students unless they feel safe.”

But some believe it’s not enough and doesn’t take into account those at risk.

Collier’s three sons all have asthma and respiratory issues, and she doesn’t plan to send them to school in the fall. With their conditions, they’re all at high risk of having serious complications if they contract the virus.

She hopes to enroll her middle-school son in an all-online program. And for her twin sons now graduating from high school, she’s asked them to take a gap year before going to college and wait for the pandemic to pass.

“They’d just get so sick,” she said, “so there’s a lot of fear. I feel like we haven’t even gotten through the first wave.”

Many decisions on how schools operate will be left to the individual districts. But the Utah Board of Education, which oversees public K-12 in the state, is advising leniency and flexibility.

During a meeting Thursday, the board drafted guidelines for schools that include allowing parents not comfortable with sending their kids back to the classroom to be able to continue with digital learning. They note: “Accommodate personal decisions of families and students who would prefer to continue remote learning” (as well as teachers who may be vulnerable).

The recommendations also ask schools to monitor students for symptoms, such as by checking them with a thermometer before they enter a building. And each district is supposed to have a shut down plan in the case of an outbreak.

Collier said she appreciates that idea but believes it’s too much of a gamble to know which districts will be strict in adhering to the measures. Hepworth worries that even with sanitation efforts, the virus will still spread in schools and could be passed on from kids to older family members at home.

Becky Jackson said she’s not sure how well teachers will be able to enforce social distancing. Her older son, age 4, is enrolled in pre-kindergarten through the Head Start program.

There aren’t any seats in the classroom, which is typically pretty open with a few play areas.

“I just don’t know how you can make 4-year-olds socially distant from each other,” she said. “Kids are kids; they’re going to move around. They want to run and hug each other.”

Jackson said that makes her nervous and, without a vaccine, she might keep her son and his younger brother home in the fall.

She’s enrolled in classes at the University of Utah, which is expected to reopen as well. And to stay safe, Jackson wants to continue doing her coursework online. "If I have that option, I definitely will,” she added.

Utah’s colleges switched to virtual learning shortly before K-12 schools in March. And students there are worried, too, about returning for the upcoming semester.

“My education is so important to me, but I don’t want to risk my life and the life of others just to go to school in person rather than online,” noted Aija Moore, a junior at the U.

Brandon Siracuse, a graduate student also at the U., added that he doesn’t think people will adhere to wearing masks on campus.

Others, though, have said their majors are too hard to pursue online. Sarah D’Anella, a sophomore at Snow College, is studying theater and said trying to perform remotely has been a challenge. She doesn’t want to see a rush of students flooding back on campus. But she’s happy she’ll have the option to take classes in person this fall if she wants to.

If the college didn’t plan to welcome students, she was thinking of dropping out. Her grades tanked this last semester while she was trying to learn at home.

For Nathan Little, it’s also felt like less of a choice. His 8-year-old daughter has severe dyslexia and studying outside of the classroom hasn’t worked for her. He understands some parents and students fear contracting the virus, but he worries more about his little girl falling behind — and not being able to help her.

“We just go over and over things and it doesn’t stick,” he said.

Like Hepworth’s two boys, Little’s daughter needs one-on-one attention from teachers at school. So he’s not questioning it. When schools reopen this fall, he’s planning to send her back.