Utah teachers say they haven’t received much sanitizer or PPE — including masks promised by the governor

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Granite School District communications director Ben Horsley overlooks PPE inventory being prepared to ship to schools for the start of classes next week from the Granite School District Warehouse on Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

Some Utah teachers say that all they’ve been given to disinfect their classrooms is one rag and a bottle of homemade sanitizing spray. Others say they haven’t even gotten a bottle yet.

Staff at a school district in northern Utah have resorted to making their own barriers out of cardboard boxes and laminator paper. Some are also using PVC pipe and clear shower curtains. Their pleas for Plexiglas were denied, they say.

One educator posted on social media a picture of the bag of protective equipment given out by a school district in the state. It was filled with cough drops and cotton balls. She’s not sure how those will help during the coronavirus pandemic. Another said she hasn’t received any masks — including the ones promised by the governor.

The concerns about a lack of PPE in schools come from across Utah and as many classrooms are slated to reopen for in-person instruction this week or next. And the state acknowledges that some supplies won’t arrive by then.

“I don’t have anything so far,” noted JoAnne Brown, who teaches at Olympus Junior High in Salt Lake County. “And I’m high risk in like five ways,” she added, noting she is a two-time cancer survivor and has asthma.

“I don’t even have sanitizing spray,” she said. “I just went out and bought my own soap, too. That cost probably $40, and I’m sure I’ll be spending more.”

Kathleen Riebe, a Democratic senator from Cottonwood Heights and a teacher, echoed that Monday during a legislative meeting, saying: “We’re very nervous about what we’re going to be receiving. I am in a school right now, and I have not seen any of this equipment.”

School districts and the Utah Board of Education say they’ve been trying to get supplies to teachers and hope to have those out soon. But there’s been a high demand on products, backlogs in shipping and delays in getting them out of the warehouses once they do arrive because of staff shortages.

In large part, it’s been a distribution nightmare.

The state board, for instance, purchased five packs of disinfectant wipes per teacher. Because they’re flammable, though, they couldn’t be shipped from overseas by plane and instead had to come by boat, and then trucks. They’re not expected to be in Utah until Sept. 15. For at least the first few weeks of school, then, teachers will go without.

“We’re trying to make sure these supplies reach the classroom as quickly as possible,” said Sarah Young, director of strategic initiatives for the state board, who has been helping organize procurement of hard-to-get supplies. “There have definitely been some challenges.”

Where are the N95 masks?

One of the most requested supplies, medical-grade masks, have been among the most difficult to purchase and get into the hands of teachers. And it’s possible some staff won’t get those, as well, before they go back.

The Utah Board of Education distributed 750,000 cloth masks for teachers and students across the state, but those are generally not recommended for individuals who are high risk, need more protection or spend large amounts of time around bigs groups of people, as employees in education do.

So earlier this month, Gov. Gary Herbert promised that the state would provide five KN95 face masks and two plastic face shields for every educator and school staff member in Utah. Many teachers told The Salt Lake Tribune, though, that they have yet to see those. And some districts started class this week.

“We keep hearing from the governor about the five masks, but I haven’t gotten those,” said Elise Maxwell, an elementary teacher in Salt Lake City School District. Her district will be starting this fall online, but educators are still expected to meet one-on-one with students and their families before school begins; Maxwell wants to be safe during those visits.

Deborah Gatrell, who teaches at Hunter High in Granite District, added: “We don’t know what the governor is talking about.”

Margaret, who works for a school in northern Utah that welcomed students back this week, said she hasn’t received a mask from the state or her district. The Tribune verified her employment and agreed to identify her by only her first name as she feared retribution for speaking out. “I’ve had to buy my own,” she said, noting she spent $100 to get 50 KN95 masks.

“We just haven’t heard anything,” she said. “Maybe it’s coming? I hope so.”

For now, she said, teachers in her district are making their own plastic shields out of boxes and laminator paper in the hopes that it will provide extra protection. Margaret said her district hasn’t been willing to provide Plexiglas barriers.

Herbert tweeted Monday that the state has “finished distributing these [masks] to school districts,” and it’s now up to them to get them to educators. “Teachers who have not received requisite supplies should work with their administrators to address their needs,” he wrote. His spokeswoman also confirmed the KN95 shipments to the 41 public districts in Utah, as well as charter schools. In total, she said, 28,000 teachers and 16,000 staff members should receive them.

The spokesmen for both Canyons and Granite School Districts said they received the masks late Monday afternoon. Those have not been distributed yet, though their warehouse staff and custodians are working overtime to get them out.

A few charters and districts, though, report not having gotten any packages by Tuesday. Jordan has received some, but not all, said Young. At the very least, it looks like there will be delays.

Part of the problem, noted Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education, is that the state is distributing them through a different system than the board uses to get supplies to schools. It goes through counties rather than districts, he added.

Additionally, though the state is providing the high-quality masks, they aren’t meant to last a long time. Mark Ensign, a teacher at Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy in Lindon, said when he got his pack of KN95s, it came with a label to only use one for four hours maximum. “That gets me through like one week total, then,” he said.

“Don’t tell us that you’re going to supply all of these things and collect the political points,” he added, “and then not do enough. We are woefully underprepared.”

Others are being instructed to wear the masks for designated days of the weeks, re-using the same mask every Monday and Tuesday and so forth until they wear out.

Granite School District has purchased its own additional supply of KN95s, but even that is complicated. It bought enough for the high-risk individuals on its staff. And now the district is having teachers fill out a form to see if they qualify for those.

Brown said she submitted one of the requests and hasn’t heard back yet. Currently, she’s just got the cloth face mask provided by the district. It warns on the label, though: “Not intended to prevent or eliminate exposure to any disease, infection, or communicable disease.”

(Screenshot) Pictured is the warning label inside the cloth masks provided by Granite School District.

Granite’s spokesman, Ben Horsley, said “it’s the same quality of mask that everyone is wearing right now. They were never intended to be N95s.”

But the requests filled out by teachers, he added, should be approved before school starts next week. And that supply should last for those high-risk individuals for the entire school year.

Worried about sanitation supplies

Many teachers have also expressed concern over a lack of disinfectants for their classrooms.

Some in Granite District say they haven’t received any sanitizing spray yet, but they’ve been told they’ll get one container of ionized water when they do. (One educator at Cottonwood High School jokingly called it homemade “magic water.”)

Horsley confirmed that distribution is still happening. “They have not gotten all of those supplies yet,” he said. “Some schools have them. Some schools don’t.”

Brown, who’s at Olympus Junior High and is high risk, said she’s hopeful those will arrive soon. She teaches sixth and seventh grade science and has up to 35 kids in her classes, switching in and out for each period. The district, she said, has instructed teachers and students to wipe down their desks periodically.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) JoAnne Brown, a teacher at Olympus Junior High School is at an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and hasn't been given many PPE supplies for the school year, August 18, 2020.

She’s not sure how that will work yet, though she feels better after learning that Granite will be making its own all-natural disinfectant cleaner. Horsley said there would be no shortage of that.

An educator in Cache County also noted, though, that she’s only gotten one bottle of Spic and Span and one rag. One in Utah County said she’s been instructed to bring her own towels. Another added that she was told to cut up paper towels to give to her students to clean their desks. And a few in Davis County have also reported not receiving anything; some teachers there have sent out letters to parents, begging for donations of Lysol or Clorox wipes.

Meanwhile, some say they’ve only got one small bottle of hand sanitizer. Gatrell at Hunter High says she hasn’t gotten any. “It’s frustrating,” she said. “I am worried for the families of my students and some of my students that do have health conditions. I want everyone to be safe.”

Many spoke with The Tribune about the lack of supplies, but feared giving their names for fear of retribution. Their identities and positions were all verified.

“I’m really nervous,” added one middle school teacher in Jordan District. “I’m high risk. … I’m kind of stuck and can’t really do anything about it.”

Ensign, who teaches at Maeser Preparatory Academy, said he’s spent about $50 getting his own sanitizer wipes after his charter school gave him one bottle of cleaner “that they told us not to get on our hands.” He believes the academy is doing as much as it can. He wants to go back to in-person instruction. He just wants to do so safely.

But some school districts have also specifically instructed their teachers not to use Clorox wipes because they can interact with the chemicals that their custodians use. That includes Canyons District at the south end of the Salt Lake Valley, where those are off-limits for teachers.

“We don’t want there to be off-the-street chemicals brought into our schools that could react with the chemicals that we use,” explained spokesman Jeff Haney.

He said the district has spent $1 million on cleaning supplies, and some schools are also offering additional stipends for teachers to buy extra things they need, such as more rags or bottles.

Granite is also discouraging Clorox wipes because Horsley said they’re not safe for kids, who might ingest them.

But the Utah Board of Education has already invested in getting packages of those for teachers, along with sanitizer stands and refills. So it’s unclear what teachers in Granite or Canyons will do with those when they arrive mid-September.

The state board, Young said, has spent more than $3 million in federal funding from the CARES Act on personal protective equipment for teachers. That has also included buying non-contact thermometers for districts that didn’t have them, in addition to the masks, sanitizer and wipes.

Any other purchases for supplies to protect teachers have been left to districts. And that means what does end up being provided varies, including the school that declined to buy Plexiglass barriers or the one that handed out bags with cough drops.

Young said she’s not sure which district that is, but she finds it concerning. “If there are things that are not reaching our teachers, we want to know,” she added. “We want to make sure they’re getting what they can.”