Deborah Gatrell: I felt better prepared going into combat than into school

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign at Backman Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

Teachers, like me, are speaking out on the importance of a safe return to school this fall because we care deeply about our students and their families.

We know families are under-resourced for at-home learning, so we’re prioritizing a return to in-person instruction as soon as conditions allow.

Concerns about learning loss are valid. The Philippines cancelled in-person school until there is a vaccine.

We also recognize many Utah districts gave up on public health guidance from medical experts because it is just “too hard” in Utah’s overcrowded classrooms. Masks give us a fighting chance, but they aren’t enough. Improved HVAC filters will help, but they are not more important than spacing and hygiene — neither of which in-person current return-to-school plans satisfactorily address.

Students need an education but there are no schools without staff.

If we reopen schools in areas with uncontrolled community spread, they will likely close within weeks due to quarantines, as happened in Israel.

Substitute teachers, para-educators and other support staff have been in short supply for years. Many more quit over the summer because of pandemic safety concerns. These essential school personnel do not have health insurance through their school districts.

We’ve been told that, if we are sickened by COVID at school, we should make a workers compensation claim, but it would be impossible to prove anyone got sick at school, so claims would not be paid. Then what? Potential medical bankruptcy.

Little wonder many are jumping ship, including teachers eligible for retirement. The teacher shortage will be exacerbated, permanently, because of our rush to prioritize the economy over public health. Using schools as childcare won’t save the economy when COVID cases are high and many people are reluctant to gather, travel or spend.

A Georgia Tech risk assessment tool allows you to determine county-wide risk of COVID-19 exposure by group size. Risk varies, but if I learned anything as an Army pilot, it is to acknowledge and mitigate risk.

As of Pioneer Day, in Salt Lake County where I live and teach, there was a 58% chance of COVID-19 exposure in any group of 25. All my classes are larger than that, so I’ll have to take that chance three or four times every day as a high school teacher.

May the odds be ever in my favor...

No one is owning this. The fact that school district plans accept different risks with wildly different plans in the same county proves we’re making stuff up. It feels like the scene in Shrek when Lord Farquardt announces, “Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice risk I am willing to make.”

The finger-pointing is worse. My district decided we’re opening fully in-person with an online option, and that we will switch to a hybrid or online instruction-only model if the county health department directs it. I called the county health department, and they said they cannot direct this. Neither can the Utah Department of Health, which pointed me to the Utah State Board of Education. USBE’s answer is to contact the local school district. Round and round we go.

We desperately need leadership guided by medical and scientific expertise. State and local health departments, with the governor’s blessing, should establish clear metrics for when it is safe to fully reopen schools, when class sizes must be limited and when schools must be online to protect the health and safety of the community. Without this, we will likely experience chaotic closings. With this guidance, we can smoothly transition between instructional modes as needed.

I’ve spent time in a combat zone and honestly, I feel better prepared for combat than for this return-to-school. There is much work to be done by the governor’s office, health departments and state and local school boards. Time is running out. I’ll do my part to advocate and problem-solve. I’m prepared to return to school in whatever form it takes over the course of the school year, but not everyone can or will.

If you want to help, make some phone calls, send some emails, then sign up as a substitute teacher, lunch worker or bus driver! If we’re to be heroes, we need sidekicks.

Do it for the children.

Deborah Gatrell

Deborah Gatrell, West Valley City, is a candidate for Salt Lake County Council District 2. She teaches in the Granite School District and has served as a Blackhawk pilot and intelligence officer in the Army National Guard.