Utah Sen. Mike Lee apologizes for making fun of plastic shields in schools

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mike Lee answers questions at a town hall in Draper on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020.

After a flood of angry comments, Utah Sen. Mike Lee has deleted his social media posts that mocked teachers at a Provo elementary school for using plastic dividers in their classrooms to safeguard students during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Republican senator originally shared and was reacting to a Instagram post he had seen from Edgemont Elementary, which showed kids sitting at their desks behind handmade clear barriers. The school called them “power shields” — a stand-in for Plexiglas barriers that are now being studied, with some Colorado researchers questioning their effectiveness in schools.

On Twitter, Lee included a screenshot of that image and asked: “Does this look like a fun way to learn?” On Facebook, Lee suggested that “power shields” was “a euphemism for ‘cage.’”

“What the actual hell?” he wrote. “I’m sure that whoever came up with this idea had good intentions, but some ideas prove better on paper than in practice. This is mean.”

(Screenshot) Sen. Mike Lee has since deleted this Facebook post from Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, about teachers using plastic dividers in their classrooms.

(Screenshot) Sen. Mike Lee has since deleted this tweet from Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, about teachers using plastic dividers in their classrooms.

Hundreds of people responded, criticizing Lee for what they saw as an attack on educators trying to keep kids safe with limited supplies. “Nothing to see here. Just a Senator mocking + shaming public school teachers for doing their best with virtually no support from Utah’s public officials,” one man wrote.

Another user commented, “Do your job and pass a relief bill and leave teachers alone.” One added, “His comments disgust me.” A third said, “Looks a hell of a lot more fun than dying on a ventilator.”

Several of the responses came specifically from parents with kids at Edgemont Elementary. And one was from a teacher: “To be ridiculed as we work so hard with so little under such miserable degrading conditions, it’s crushing. I don’t want to do this job anymore.”

Just a handful supported the senator. “I agree with Senator Lee,” one woman wrote. “The powers that be are conditioning us for the vax that will make them richer,” she said, referring to the coronavirus vaccines currently being tested.

Lee deleted his posts early Thursday morning and shared a lengthy apology. He said he commented on the plastic shields “without inquiry into how widespread this practice might be or any unique circumstances that might have been at play in that classroom.”

He continued: “It was a mistake on my part to post it, along with my flippant commentary. While I have questions and concerns regarding the seating arrangement displayed in that photograph, I recognize that these are difficult times, that reasonable minds can disagree as to the best solution in any given set of circumstances, and that it’s certainly not my place to make decisions [regarding] what’s best for a particular classroom.”

The senator said his comments “showed disrespect for the teacher in that classroom, along with parents and other school personnel who might have been involved.”

Caleb Price, the spokesman for Provo School District, responded to the original post by saying it “saddens us.” Teachers, he added, are doing what they can to create “the safest and healthiest place possible for out students and teachers.”

“We’ll continue to do what’s best,” Price said.

But the social media posts also opened up a bigger conversation about the effectiveness of plastic dividers and Plexiglas barriers in preventing spread of COVID-19.

Teachers across Utah have been expressing concerns this week that they have not been given enough protective equipment to return for the school year. One educator in northern Utah said staff at her school have been making shields for students out of cardboard boxes and laminator paper, as well as clear shower curtains and PVC pipe.

Some experts say that those types of dividers might redirect contagious air particles so that when students are sitting face-to-face, they go up toward the ceiling instead of out in front of a person.

Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who have been studying air flow with COVID-19, though, say that without good ventilation in a classroom, those particles will still hang in the air and could continue to cause infection — despite a shield.

Terri Fiez, the vice chancellor for research and innovation at the school, said during an online discussion earlier this month that the plastic dividers make sense for short-term interactions, such as between a cashier and a customer in a grocery store. What helps there, too, is that the doors of a store are constantly being opened and shut, and most businesses have high-quality air filtration systems that circulate new air frequently.

The challenge with classrooms is that kids and teachers share the same space for seven hours a day. And many schools don’t have good ventilation systems or windows that open.

Shelly Miller, a mechanical engineering professor at the university, has also studied the issue, specifically looking at performing arts in schools. She has found that Plexiglas partitions or barriers between student musicians are not recommended because the room’s HVAC system cannot properly change the air.

“Dead zones” or areas where aerosol can build-up are a concern. That’s particularly a worry when singers are forcing out a lot of air or students are blowing out of instruments.

But the same, she said, it can happen in a regular classroom where groups spend a lot of time.

“Those of us who study airflow are against using Plexiglas in general classrooms,” Miller said, “due to the uncertainty about what would happen with the airflow.”