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UEA asks Herbert to shift most junior high and high schools to remote learning

In-person learning amid record COVID-19 numbers poses ‘unacceptable’ risk, teacher union says

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Oquirrh Hills Middle School in Riverton is pictured on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Education Association on Friday urged Gov. Gary Herbert to require all public secondary schools in communities with high rates of COVID-19 transmission to pivot to remote instruction and suspend all extracurricular activities that cannot be conducted under social distancing guidelines.

Secondary schools are middle schools, junior high and high schools.

“This change should take place, at a minimum, from the Thanksgiving holiday through winter break or until such time as COVID-19 cases significantly decline,” according to a statement from the state’s largest teacher association.

Continuing in-person learning amid record numbers of COVID-19 infection rates “poses an unacceptable level of risk for our students, our educators and our communities,” the statement says.

UEA’s request comes as state health authorities announced an all-time high number of new COVID-19 cases on Friday — 2,987. There are 395 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 and the rolling seven-day average for percent of positive laboratory tests is 19.7%, according to data released by the Utah Department of Health.

“Current strategies to address COVID-19 in Utah are clearly not working. We are now seeing multiple schools repeatedly shift back and forth from in-person to at-home learning due to outbreaks. 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,” UEA’s statement said. 

A statement from the governor’s office expressed gratitude for the association’s “straightforward input.”

It continued: “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. We will take their recommendations under advisement, in close consultation with the Utah Department of Health.”

UEA officials said they believe the governor, in coordination with the state health department, has authority to order schools to shift to virtual learning.

“If the governor remains reluctant, we call on local school boards to assume this leadership responsibility,” UEA’s statement says.

Bryce Dunford, president of the Jordan School Board, said the board will discuss the issue at its meeting next week. Earlier this week, a board member had heard “through the grapevine” that UEA would be making such a proposal and requested to put it on the board’s next meeting agenda.

“Oh my goodness, that opened up a firestorm of emails. It’s probably 10 to 1 in favor of not doing that,” Dunford said.

Many said they don’t want their children home during that time period. But others say it’s a great idea and it should be extended to elementary schools, too, Dunford said.

Most data suggest the virus appears to spread more in social settings and far less so in schools, he said.

“So why would we keep them out of school during a month when people are prone to have family activities? If kids aren’t in school, they’re going to do more things in social gatherings and that’s where it spreads. So part of me thinks that’s the best place for students to be is in school, not at home,” he said.

UEA’s statement notes the pandemic has not been experienced equally by all communities and populations, particularly in rural areas and communities of color.

“As school districts temporarily focus on at-home learning, they must consider ways to deliver equal learning opportunities to help close gaps exacerbated by the disparate impacts of school changes.”

The juggling of teaching modalities combined with the stress of school environment that puts educators’ personal and family health at risk “has created an untenable situation for our Utah educators. Immediate action is required to not only address the pandemic, 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.”