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Utah teachers are considered the most at risk in the nation for being exposed to and catching the coronavirus in the classroom, according to a new study — though Gov. Gary Herbert said he strongly questions that finding.
The analysis came this week from Insurify, a technology company that calculates and compares insurance rates. Researchers used a setup similar to determining home and auto coverage to figure out which states were doing the most to protect teachers and which had conditions that might exacerbate spread.
Crowded classrooms, for instance, were regarded as a hazard that would prevent social distancing. And Utah is consistently ranked the worst for packing kids in. Low funding per pupil was also seen as indicator that there might be little spent on protective equipment. And Utah is always dead last for student spending.
“Those two alone are huge,” said Alexandra Conza, a data scientist for Insurify. “Given the overcrowding and underfunding, we realized it wasn’t so surprising to see Utah at the bottom.”
The company also looked at the average age of educators — in Utah, it’s 42 years old — because older individuals are more susceptible and tend to face more serious complications from the virus. In the state, Conza said, 34.6 out of every 100 teachers is over the age of 50. The national average is 30.7 out of 100 teachers, data that comes from the National Center for Education Statistics.
That is likely due to a teacher shortage in Utah with many young professionals leaving the field early due to the workload or low pay, and more leaving because of COVID-19.
Insurify also added into its calculation a state’s daily case counts and death totals, as well as how quickly states have reopened during the pandemic and whether political leaders pushed schools to return for in-person learning. Utah may be doing relatively well on the first two metrics, but it checks the boxes for last two, with Herbert encouraging the economy to restart and students to be welcomed back to the classroom this fall.
“That means requiring teachers to return to in-person and that could compromise their health,” Conza noted.
Only one district here — Salt Lake City — will start the year online.
Altogether, each state was given a score out of 100. Utah got 55 points. It was ranked last and given an F grade for having conditions that would leave teachers more vulnerable to the virus.
“These findings can’t conclusively predict the outcomes for Utah teachers,” Conza said, “but the level of risk shouldn’t be ignored.”
As with many rankings that also include class size and pupil spending, Utah is followed by Idaho, which nabbed the second worst spot in the country. It earned 59 of 100 points. The next lowest was Indiana.
The states most prepared to protect teachers were Massachusetts and Rhode Island, according to Insurify.
On Thursday, though, Herbert scoffed at the idea of Utah being in last place and disagreed with the finding. During his virtual weekly news conference, the governor said his first priority has been making sure students were safe to return and get an education — but he asserted that has not come at the expense of teachers.
“I think our teachers do feel like we’re doing everything we can to create a safe environment,” he said.
Herbert added that the state has provided medical-grade masks and face shields to all educators and school staff (though with some delays). And he applauded his mask mandate for K-12 schools. “There’s only so much PPE you can wear,” he said.
Additionally, he noted, some districts — such as Davis — are addressing the class size issue by alternating days that students are there in person.
“We’re doing the best we can with the best advice we have,” he said.
Herbert’s education adviser, Tami Pyfer, acknowledged some of the concerns the report raised. With crowded classrooms in particular, she said, “this is something we’ve known for a long time.”
Pyfer ticked through the other figures that went into the calculation and applauded Utah for being above average for the strength of its teachers union and the quality of its health care. “I’m not sure how they weighted each factor, though,” she said.
Insurify has said the exact breakdown is proprietary information, though Conza said class size was a larger percentage because of how social distancing relates to the spread of COVID-19. That means teachers aren’t able to get enough space between their desks. In Utah, some have reported just 20 inches.
Overall, Pyfer believes the state has worked to protect teachers, but said there is more that can be done, including improving broadband so more students can complete their schooling from home. Without some extra steps, she worries, the pandemic will cause more teachers to leave. Already, at least 79 have resigned or quit in Salt Lake County before the school year started.
“To see them leave the classroom for any reason is always a little bit troubling,” Pyfer said, noting some districts are more heavily impacted than others. Granite, for instance, has seen the highest attrition, which is likely due to it returning mostly in person with few options for educators to work remotely.
That will only make the teacher shortage worse, she said.
Herbert quickly countered: “I’m concerned about having a safe environment, and if we have that, then I’m not concerned about teachers leaving.”
The governor also said that the recent outbreaks in schools are “not totally unexpected.” Districts, he said, have planned for those and, even with two schools temporarily closing, it shouldn’t make anyone worried.
Since public schools began opening on Aug. 13, there have been 15 outbreaks in schools, affecting 95 patients, with eight new cases reported in the past day.
From the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 140 patients infected in 26 school outbreaks, with a median age of 17. Seven of those patients have been hospitalized; none have died.
Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said the outbreaks show that schools are spreading the virus after most have been open for less than two weeks. And the study ranking teachers most at risk, she added, should be a top concern for any state or school official seeing the cases increase.
“It should trigger the investments and the attention that it requires,” Matthews said. “There’s an urgent need to take care of our educators. The decisions we make right now about how we’re treating our teachers and looking out for them are going to have long-term impacts.”
Instead, during the pandemic, she said, teachers have been given additional work trying to teach both in-person and online classes. And their pay hasn’t changed.
Now, she said, the state just has one more ranking to show how little education is valued.