Ben Henderson: Not all teachers oppose reopening schools in Utah

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters social-distance on the lawn as they listen to speakers, during a Mask-In and Car Caravan protest at the State Capitol to demand the governor and other state local leaders ensure Utah schools protect students and staff when schools reopen. Thursday, July 23, 2020.

The Utah Education Association, Utah’s largest teacher’s union, recently published a diatribe against the return of students to in-person learning this fall in the state of Utah. It is important that citizens in Utah realize that their ambiguous lists of concerns and unproven assertions are not shared by all within the education community.

UEA President Heidi Matthews attempts to falsely portray the case for returning to school as a binary choice between a, “return to in-person learning and put our students, educators and communities at risk or temporarily return to a distance learning and virtual instruction model.”

The situation is much more complicated and nuanced than Matthews and the UEA deign to acknowledge.

First of all, the UEA in their recent statement ignores or at least fails to recognize the increasing body of data that suggests children’s (especially primary aged students) ability to spread or be significantly endangered by the novel coronavirus is very limited. While certainly not definitive, it is tactless to ignore this evidence that conflicts with the UEA’s aims.

Secondly, the UEA seems to think it is impossible to take precautions and prudent safety measures to severely mitigate risk for teachers and students. The charter school that I am fortunate enough to be a part of, American Preparatory Academy, has been using the summer to come up with innovative solutions to get kids back to school safely taking into account thoughts from teachers, parents, and health officials. To suggest that schools are incapable of adjusting to this new paradigm is ludicrous.

Lastly, the UEA reduces the question to return to school down to the single variable of students and teachers’ possible exposure to COVID-19. This is dangerous at its core. Students at home are at risk for other negative outcomes that the UEA fails to fully flesh out.

The mental health of many students would be put in jeopardy by removing the stable social outlet of school. Furthermore, the students who live with poorer educated families or are in situations with less available technology will be more dramatically affected by not returning to school than those from more affluent backgrounds.

I personally noticed this while teaching this spring. It was difficult to see the academic gains that my students had made disintegrate, while also observing first-hand their agony over not being able to be with friends. Citizens should prioritize anything that does not exacerbate the glaring educational disparities between individuals of color and their generally better-off white peers.

The optimist in me wants to believe that the UEA has what all educators should, the desire to do what is best for kids to help them grow into amazing and smart human beings and citizens. The cynic in me looks at the UEA’s fourth guiding principle which seems like a flagrant call for more money.

While I’m not opposed to increased funding of education in our state — in fact, I believe it is essential — I think that holding the future of our children hostage by using the panic caused by an apparent crisis is selfish.

At the end of the day, I believe students, teachers, and the future of Utah will be best served if kids are allowed to return to in-person schooling this fall.

Ben Henderson

Ben Henderson, South Salt Lake, is a sixth grade teacher at American Preparatory Academy.

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