Utah teachers union demands governor force schools to close during COVID-19 outbreaks

Utah’s largest teachers union is demanding that Gov. Gary Herbert create “clear, enforceable requirements” for schools after several have elected to ignore state health guidelines and stay open despite outbreaks of the coronavirus.

The call from the Utah Education Association on Friday comes after more than 15 students and staff at both Corner Canyon High and Riverton High tested positive for the virus, but the boards for each school district initially voted not to shut down. Canyons School District reversed course later Friday on Corner Canyon, but a third school under its jurisdiction, Brighton High, has also now passed that threshold for active cases and won’t immediately be closed either.

“Teachers reported to work believing Utah Health Department guidelines would be followed,” the union wrote to Herbert. Now, though, the letter added: “We are hearing from many teachers who say they feel helpless, disrespected and unsafe.”

The state health department has recommended — but not required — that a school close and switch to virtual learning for two weeks after 15 active cases. The idea is to get past the incubation period of the virus and limit the spread of an outbreak. But whether to follow that advice has been left to districts. And, so far, some in Salt Lake County have decided not to take it.

Heidi Matthews, the president of the UEA, said Friday that’s putting teachers at serious risk for illness.

The governor’s office responded to the demands Friday by saying it appreciates the engagement from the union on the issue. “Given the recent surge in cases, our office is working with the Unified Command and stakeholders to ensure our response is modulated to best protect public health and safety,” a spokesperson there said in a statement.

Since schools across the state began opening on Aug. 13 at the encouragement of the governor, there have been 56 outbreaks tied to the classroom. That has led to 357 positive cases and 11 hospitalizations.

Matthews pointed to one of those cases in particular. This week, Corner Canyon High School teacher Charri Jensen was admitted to an intensive care unit and put on a ventilator after her family says she contracted COVID-19 while at school. The district chose not to close the high school right away, as Matthews believes it should have, and now more than 500 students and staff are quarantined.

Canyons School District spokesman Jeff Haney confirmed the outbreak and said five teachers there have tested positive. He declined to specify how many students have been sick beyond “more than 70.” It will now close, though, for two weeks after a late Friday vote from the school board.

Matthews said the situation there “has to wake us up.” While young students may not get as ill from the virus, studies have found that they do carry and spread it. And teachers are more at risk for serious complications from contracting COVID-19 because of their age or health conditions. Matthews fears, if action is not taken, that more educators may quit and it’s possible someone dies.

“We are all just praying for this teacher from Corner Canyon and her family,” she said. “We have a choice here. We can be doing those things that keep our educators safe. And we’re choosing not to.”

Matthews added: “It’s really puzzling to me how the state Department of Health can present these guidelines that are well-founded … only to then turn around and say these are only recommendations. They should be requirements that are enforced.”

The Utah Education Association is asking Herbert to make that change, mandating a shutdown after any school outbreak of 15 or more cases. He’s already required masks for K-12 students and staff, and the union has applauded that. They’d also like to see it more strictly enforced.

Additionally, the members would like to see any large gatherings or events at school, such as dances, be canceled. They want the workload for teachers lightened — especially with the requirements to teach both online and in-person classes. And they’re requesting that local districts and the Utah State Board of Education join in efforts to make schools safer for staff.

“We’re calling for significantly better accountability,” Matthews said.

Matthews hopes the UEA will be included in talks with the governor this weekend on how to respond to the recent spike that has largely been attributed to schools reopening.

The union had previously called on Herbert not to allow schools to welcome students back this fall if they were in areas with high community transmission. But the governor did not agree. And most classrooms have had kids coming for in-person instruction.

The transmission of the virus this fall, Matthews said, has only reinforced the many concerns the union had.