Utah teachers union demands that Gov. Gary Herbert move junior high and high schools online while COVID-19 cases break records

(Tribune file photo) Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, speaks on July 29, 2017. She has recently called on Gov. Gary Herbert to close secondary schools while COVID-19 cases spread uncontrolled throughout the state, with several records smashed on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020.

Utah’s largest teachers union is demanding that Gov. Gary Herbert suspend all in-person classes at junior high and high schools in the state where there’s high transmission of COVID-19 — saying a shift to online would be safer for teachers and “in the best interest of student learning.”

The call from the Utah Education Association on Friday came on a record day for virus cases both across the state and in schools. For K-12 classrooms, in particular, there were 281 new positive cases, the highest ever single-day jump.

“We find that very alarming,” said UEA President Heidi Matthews. “Our communities are not changing their behaviors enough to drive this virus down. So now we need to take stronger action and protect our educators and our kids.”

The union, which represents more than 18,000 teachers in the state, is asking that all secondary schools transition to remote learning through the end of the year in the areas identified as being “high” risk for spreading the coronavirus. That applies to most, including 22 of the 29 counties here.

Secondary schools in Utah have seen far more outbreaks than elementaries. At least two middle schools and 34 high schools have hit the 15-case threshold that the state health department recommends trigger a two-week closure to contain spread.

Nine of those occurred this week. And one school — Copper Hills High in Jordan School District — recorded its third such outbreak on Tuesday, with its board of education opting to move to virtual classes through Thanksgiving. It is among at least four schools in the state that have hit 15 cases more than once this year.

Some have opted not to follow the health department’s advice and shut down, which the UEA has also called on the governor to enforce. So far, he has not taken action on that previous request or another from the more recently vocal union that advised him to not allow classrooms in high-risk areas to reopen at all this fall. This is the association’s third plea for action during the pandemic.

Instead, Herbert encouraged schools to welcome students back face-to-face. And only one district in the state — Salt Lake City — opted to start the year remotely.

Meanwhile, other schools have switched between in-person and online learning each time there’s been a new outbreak.

The UEA wrote in a letter to the governor that “this cycle is obviously not helping to control the virus spread and, as educators, we can unequivocally state the continual interruptions are not in the best interest of student learning.” Matthews described it as “yo-yoing” that makes instruction hard for teachers and understanding difficult for students.

The union is asking that Herbert now mandate that secondary schools close to in-person instruction from, at minimum, after Thanksgiving through the end of winter break (or until cases significantly decline). Several colleges in the state have already planned to follow that schedule in an effort to reduce face-to-face interactions during the flu season and while students visit family.

Herbert’s office said Friday that the governor is grateful for the UEA’s “straightforward input.”

“The health and safety of Utah’s teachers is a high priority, and we are currently reviewing steps the state of Utah can take to protect them in this pandemic," a spokesperson said in a statement. “We will take their recommendations under advisement, in close consultation with the Utah Department of Health.”

Matthews countered: “If the governor remains reluctant, we call on the local boards in every district in those high-risk areas to step up.”

In person learning, she acknowledged, is best. But there is “an unacceptable level of risk” to the lives of students and educators to continue with that for now.

According to state data, the virus is spreading among all ages of Utah students. But the rate is much higher among those who are older and in the middle school and high school age range.

For those 14 to 18 years old in public school, there’s a rate of 116.1 cases among 100,000. For those 11 to 13, it drops by about half, to 58.1. For those 5 to 10, it’s even lower, at 32.5.

That tracks with federal data that shows younger students can still transmit the virus, though older teens are as likely to contract it as adults. But teachers still have been the worst impacted.

So far, 5,708 kids in Utah schools have gotten COVID-19. That’s 0.85% of the 665,000 student population. At the same time, 988 teachers have contracted the disease. That’s a disproportionate 3.7% of the 27,000 educator workforce in the state. At least one teacher and one principal have been hospitalized after getting the virus at school.

Matthews worries if no action is taken and classes remain in person, more teachers will leave the classroom. Already, at least 79 quit or retired in just Salt Lake County before school started this fall. Matthews said the fear of getting COVID-19 and spreading it to family, along with the increased workload of teaching during the pandemic, is “untenable.”

“Immediate action is required to not only address the pandemic,” she said, “but also to stave off what we fear will be a wave of teachers choosing to leave the profession due to increasingly unacceptable working conditions.”