Utah teachers union demands that the governor abandon his plan to reopen schools

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Elizabeth Pickett, a teacher at Westvale Elementary School, joined other teachers and parents holding signs calling for a safe plan on reopening schools prior to a Jordan School District board meeting in Riverton on Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

The state’s largest teachers union is calling on Gov. Gary Herbert to keep Utah schools closed this fall — saying it’s too dangerous for educators and students to return while coronavirus cases remain high.

The demand from the Utah Education Association (UEA) comes as districts are required to present plans for how they will reopen by week’s end. Most are offering hybrid options, where some students would come to class while others would be educated remotely. But many teachers remain concerned about their safety.

“We simply cannot unnecessarily risk lives by opening schools too soon,” UEA President Heidi Matthews said Tuesday.

Utah has the nation’s largest class sizes and many educators fear that even with fewer kids, they won’t be able to appropriately distance in classrooms, which could lead to outbreaks. Others say their districts aren’t doing enough to protect them, with many teachers considered high-risk for serious complications and death from the virus because of their age or health conditions.

In its statement, the UEA asks that the governor abandon his directive for classrooms to reopen, suggesting instead that most schools in the state start the year with online learning.

“We call on Gov. Gary Herbert to lead with science and safety and declare that schools in impacted areas will open remotely this fall,” the union wrote in a letter unanimously approved by its board of directors. “We call on him to declare that local school districts should NOT return to in-person learning until COVID-19 cases decline.”

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on that. As of Tuesday, the seven-day average new number of cases was 541 — above the 500-case average that Herbert had called for by Aug. 1.

The UEA, which represents more than 18,000 educators in the state, aligns with other unions across the country, as well as the national American Federation of Teachers, which said Tuesday that educators should strike if their districts don’t have adequate safety plans.

In Utah, the UEA says most drafts “don’t go far enough” to protect anyone — but especially not teachers.

“Our educators’ lives are not expendable,” Matthews said. “We have a choice here, and we choose safety. There’s no acceptable risk level if that means someone could die.”

There are no plans to strike, though the UEA is pushing for schools to wait to reopen classrooms until coronavirus transmission rates drop. The transmission rate represents how many people will be infected by someone who has the virus, and ideally, that would be somewhere around 1% — meaning the number of new infections would stay fairly steady.

But that rate is something few places have achieved. The union is looking at research from Georgia Tech, which shows that just four counties in Utah — Emery, Rich, Piute and Wayne, all rural — would be considered at a low enough risk level for students to return safely.

The union would like most areas to at least delay in-person instruction and reevaluate individually and periodically as the school year goes on.

That extra time should be spent on coming up with more robust plans for when they actually do reopen, it said. The union specifically wants effective contact tracing in place for schools and stricter mask requirements for students and teachers (the governor’s mandate for that has wide exemptions). They’re also calling for strict sanitation. Everything, the UEA said, should be planned and approved with the help of health experts and teachers.

And there should be an extra focus on the safety of educators because they’re more at risk than most students — though kids still spread the virus and could take it home to older family members. “Overall, we are seeing an absence of discussion on employee-related rights and work conditions,” Matthews added, such as sick leave or hazard pay.

The UEA generally doesn’t make statewide demands, so the blunt statement Tuesday is somewhat surprising.

Matthews said she felt compelled to act because so many teachers are anxious about school starting next month. Right now, she added, the plans for reopening are piecemeal, with some hits and a lot of misses.

Salt Lake City School District, for instance, hasn’t approved yet how it will return. Meanwhile, neighboring Canyons School District is offering either 100% online or fully in person — with no in between — and 25 teachers have quit as a result, a spokesman there confirmed. Davis School District was previously going to reopen as normal, but changed to a hybrid schedule that educators there say still leaves them exposed.

About 150 educators rallied against the plans at the Utah Capitol last week, saying they don’t feel safe with any of them, and they’d rather teach online than die returning to the classroom. One teacher in Sandy did her own survey of 1,094 educators and found that, informally, nearly 78% didn’t feel comfortable going back.

On Tuesday, another group protested outside the Jordan School District, which plans to hold school in person for four days a week with Friday classes held remotely.

“It doesn’t allow or provide for any type of social distancing,” said the union president for the district, Kelly Giffen. “You’re just magnifying your exposure.”

The Jordan Education Association agrees with the UEA on not reopening. But if in-person classes do resume, the smaller union would like to have kids alternate days or times at school so there are no large gatherings.

“That would go a long way in making our teachers feel safer and more comfortable,” Giffen added.

At the rally, about 35 people came and held signs that said, “Teach online until numbers decline” and “Keep us safe.” Everyone wore masks.

At the same time, Matthews acknowledges that there’s no right answer for everyone. While the majority of teachers represented by the union agree with holding class online as a protection, many in more rural areas of the state don’t, and want to return to the classroom. During a virtual discussion held by the UEA on Tuesday, one teacher in Vernal declared: “I couldn’t disagree more.”

Matthews knows, too, that some working parents need a place to take their kids and some kids need a safe space away from home. Online classes also didn’t go smoothly this spring when schools had to quickly shut down, leaving some students behind.

But she believes a few of those issues could be solved with more funding from the Legislature for computers and Wi-Fi and possibly more child care services.

“Utah schools, which are already underfunded, should not be faced with the decision of how to pay for these essentials,” she said.

Matthews also stresses that holding classes remotely isn’t a permanent decision. She just believes it’s the safest solution for now, she said, until the pandemic is more under control. Teachers want to get back, she said. They just want to do so without risking their lives.