Utahns who care about their schools should urge HB183 veto, Editorial Board writes

Legislative effort to make it harder to close schools ensures more of them will be empty.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign regarding masks at Franklin Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.

Entering the third year of the still-booming COVID-19 pandemic, Utah should be well along in its quest to have public schools that are both open and safe. There are strong, if imperfect, steps we could have taken, and still can take.

But the only power center that matters in Utah, the Republican supermajority in the state Legislature, is determined to keep schools open without caring if they are safe. Which means that many schools will not be safe and, even if officially open, largely empty, with many children missing out yet again.

It is more than the loss of so many weeks or months of school, not just academic learning but also emotional growth and security. It’s the fatigue, now deeply set in in so many households, of not knowing whether schools are, will be or should be open and how parents are to keep making all the adjustments they have to make as a result.

Utah legislative leadership’s apparent position is that doing anything to slow the spread of this often fatal disease is too much bother, so it is just as well that everyone just go ahead and get sick, get better, or die.

The most recent, and among the most disgraceful, example is a bill that flew through both chambers of the Legislature that would remove two of the most useful tools school districts have in their efforts to stay open.

Public schools in Utah were starting to make progress with a tactic called Test to Stay. Those who test negative can go about their normal routines. Those who test positive, or refuse the test, go home. It is vastly superior to the less precise tool, once all we had, of closing individual schools, or entire districts, as a precaution or in reaction to high rates of illness.

Maddeningly, the new House Bill 183, passed with no public hearings, little debate and no sense whatsoever, pauses all Test to Stay programs.

Worse, it bars any school district from moving their students to remote learning without first going through an irrationally complex process that gives far too much power to legislative leaders and far too little to local school boards.

Gov. Spencer Cox should promptly veto HB183. If he doesn’t, or if his veto of the bill is overridden, Utah school districts will not be allowed the flexibility they need to shift to remote learning when case rates rise. Instead, they will have to hold a public hearing — likely a hostile event — and make the local school board present a groveling petition that has to be approved, not just by the governor, not just by the state superintendent of schools, but also by the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate.

Just what do lawmakers expect our already frazzled parents to do when they hear that a principal or superintendent thinks the rate of infections is so high that their school should be closed, yet the school isn’t closed because so many other steps are required?

The bill demonstrates that legislative leaders have contempt for the proper role of the executive branch of government — something Cox should deeply resent — or for local school boards. It tells school districts that permission to close will be so difficult to get that they just as well not try.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, carried the bill in the Senate, making the irrational statement that it would help schools find certainty, when it will do exactly the opposite. Weiler also makes the inaccurate statement that mask mandates don’t help, when a recent study out of the University of Michigan demonstrates that school districts in that state without masking have rates of virus transmission that are 62% higher than schools with masking.

The key to keeping the schools open is to fight the virus, not capitulate to it. Yet, with last week’s action to void mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties, and this week’s HB183, lawmakers have unilaterally disarmed.

Even if schools aren’t officially closed, many of them will be barely functioning, as teachers, substitute teachers, bus drivers, lunchroom staff and others fall ill and many families don’t feel safe allowing their children anywhere near the COVID-19 incubators they once valued as their neighborhood schools.

What Utahns are left with is no plan, no hope of having a plan, and our schools and our children at the mercy of a virus that is increasingly putting even our youngest children in the ICU.

Utahns who care about their schools — which should be all of us — should urge a veto of HB183 and aggressive steps to keep our schools open. To students. Not to COVID-19.