More than 150 teachers rally at the Utah Capitol, saying the state hasn’t done enough to keep them safe

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teacher, Cara Bailey, joins protesters, during the Mask-In and Car Caravan protest at the State Capitol to demand the Governor and other state and local leaders ensure that Utah school protect students and staff when schools reopen, on Thursday, July 23, 2020.

Wendy Moss feels like she would be safer working in an intensive care unit than returning to her elementary school classroom this fall.

At least doctors, she said, are given adequate protective equipment, such as masks and suits, and see one patient at a time. She’ll be standing in front of 30 kids in a room where the windows don’t open, with only a foot of space between the desks and no way of knowing if one of her students is sick from the coronavirus.

“We are less than 30 days before school starts,” the teacher said, “and all we have is a gallon of hand sanitizer and best wishes.”

From the steps of the Utah Capitol on Thursday, she added with a shout: “It’s not good enough!”

More than 150 educators stood below her and joined in her calls for more safeguards for schools when they reopen this fall. At the mention of “protections,” they let out muffled cheers and whistles from behind cloth face masks. And they stood socially distanced from one another while rallying on the lawn — modeling the behavior they’d like to see.

If they have to go back, they said, they at least want to do so as cautiously as possible.

“We love teaching,” Moss added, tearing up. “But we should be provided with the things that we need to feel safe.”

The rally comes in response to Gov. Gary Herbert’s directive to Utah’s K-12 schools to welcome students back starting next month, which touched off a massive public debate across the state. Some question why schools are reopening at all as virus cases here have now surpassed 36,000. Others have said that kids need to get back to normal, especially with parents who need to get back to work.

Herbert issued a second mandate, as a compromise, to require students and staff to wear masks in the classroom. But then, in Utah County, residents fought that, citing constitutional rights. And so the governor issued some exemptions for those with disabilities or other concerns.

The rally in Salt Lake County was meant largely as a counterpoint, focusing on teachers who, in most cases, have little financial choice but to return and many of whom are afraid of getting sick and possibly dying.

They held colorful signs that said, “Will year 16 of teaching be my last?” and “Back to school over my dead body.” One teacher made a poster that compared reopening classrooms to a game of roulette. Only, it said, the stakes are higher.

“Who lives?” the sign asked, next to a wheel surrounded by stick figures of students and teachers. “Who dies?” Another suggested if educators die, it will exacerbate the state’s historic teacher shortage.

A few carried their own kids or pushed strollers. Others circled around the Capitol in cars, honking in support and yelling Herbert’s name.

“We are essential, I understand that,” said Deborah Gatrell, who teaches at Hunter High School. “But if you’re going to compare us to medical professionals, you need to listen to medical professionals.”

The teachers asked for metrics from health officials setting standards for when it will be safer to return to the classroom — and asked to not open in person unless those are met (instead of rewriting the guidelines, as Herbert did for Salt Lake City). They also called for more detailed guidelines from the state, which has left most decisions on scheduling and sanitation to school districts.

Several pointed to studies that showed children may not be as badly impacted by COVID-19 — but are just as capable of spreading it. That puts older and more vulnerable educators and staffers at risk, Gatrell added. And she worries the governor is ignoring the science.

“There’s a lot of talk right now of being in this together and making shared sacrifices,” she said, “but my fear is that we’re saying that and just looking at the teachers in the schools to figure it out.”

The crowd also asked that the mandate to wear masks in schools be stricter, so that not every kid’s doctor can write a note and make it moot under the listed exemptions. And Moss would like to see the state invest in medical-grade face coverings specifically for teachers.

She knows some teachers who are already buying those on their own, but she believes they should be provided. Others, too, are paying for their own air filters for their classrooms, Moss noted, so they can change them regularly. “This is not OK,” she said.

So the group is additionally asking for schools to update their heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems so they don’t spread the virus. That’s important because many of the windows don’t open, like in her classroom, Moss added, because of the threat of school shooters.

They requested that school boards also try to make staggered schedules, where possible, to avoid large groups. With Utah’s large class sizes, most rooms aren’t big enough to have 6 feet in between kids.

“We need them to learn,” said elementary educator Sarah Nichols, “but we need them alive.”

Several added that they understand online learning is difficult and that the rollout this spring, when schools first shut down, was challenging. It’s better, though, Nichols said, than risking serious illness. One sign suggested, “I can teach from a distance but not from a casket.”

The group of educators has started an online petition that now has more than 6,000 signatures asking for the state to do more to address reopening schools safely.