SALT LAKE CITY — Schools across Utah will be allowed to open for instruction this fall, after Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday announced a modification in the state’s color-coded guidance system.
He said schools can open even if an area of the state is in the orange risk category, whereas previously written guidelines precluded that.
“It’s imperative that we open our schools,” Herbert said during his weekly briefing on COVID-19. “We cannot afford to have them closed. This generation needs to have an opportunity for education, training and skills development.”
Salt Lake City School District has held back, partly due to the city still being in the orange risk category that denotes moderate threat, while the rest of the state has moved to yellow and with some green areas in more rural parts of the state, where social distancing is part of the norm.
The risk categories were set up to guide economic recovery, not necessarily indicating the risk to the public.
Salt Lake City School District spokeswoman Yándary Zavala Chatwin said school district leaders will review the governor’s guidance and determine its next steps.
“The bottom line is, we want to have kids in school but we want to do it in a way that’s safe for students and also safe for our teachers. We’re not sure right now what changes this might bring for our educational plans for the coming school year. Regardless what it looks like, for families who don’t feel comfortable coming to school in person, online-only will still be an option for them,” she said.
The school board is scheduled to meet on Tuesday but has not yet finalized its agenda. Utah public schools have until Aug. 1 to submit their plans to the Utah State Board of Education.
Chatwin said an earlier parent survey indicated if the city was in a yellow risk category that 69% of families would be “comfortable” or “very comfortable” sending their children in person part of the week and participating in online learning the remainder of the week.
Kelly Lear, whose children attend Salt Lake schools, said she appreciated the governor addressing the city’s unique situation as Utah’s only school district operating under an orange risk level.
Herbert’s announcement “strikes a good balance” as it allows students to either attend school in person, select a hybrid option by attending school in person part of the week and online the rest or remain at home, or attend school through distance learning, she said.
The sole option available under the orange risk level would have been online instruction, which some parents believe would have resulted in negative impacts on students and the school district “for potentially years,” she said.
“Many parents were looking to transfer schools to other districts that allowed in-person learning. As a parent in the Salt Lake School District, I am concerned for the safety of teachers and school staff. I also think it should be a priority that students can resume in-person learning, especially for the many low-income students in our district that rely on the resources of the schools they attend,” Lear said.
It’s important that families have options because some are not comfortable with their children returning to school for in-person instruction.
“As other districts have wrestled with how to balance the needs and health of all their students I am confident the Salt Lake School District can as well. I hope they will use their resources and creatively approach the situation,” Lear said.
A rally was conducted in front of the school district’s offices Wednesday night with parents and students expressing frustration that Salt Lake students would not have the same educational and extracurricular options as students in other school districts not under an orange status.
Earlier Wednesday, Gov. Gary Herbert met with legislative leaders to discuss the predicament of Salt Lake students. He didn’t say whether he was urged to make the modification or whether he did it with the district’s blessing.
“This allows the school board members in the Salt Lake City School District to open up similarly, but not exactly as other school districts, should they choose to do so,” Herbert said.
Lexi Cunningham, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association, said school districts across the state are doing different things, including consideration for movement, duration, proximity, group size, respiratory output, touch and congestion. Options for online and distance learning are also available to families.
“Choice is important to our schools, to our districts, to our families, to our students,” Cunningham said, adding that in-person, online and/or distance instruction will be incorporated “where feasible.”
She said districts are focusing on student and staff safety, a renewed commitment to keeping buildings clean and, especially, the social-emotional wellbeing of students and teachers.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said she appreciated the governor responding to the needs of the Salt Lake School District.
Herbert’s guidance not only affects the school district but also public charter schools in Salt Lake City’s boundaries so providing more options “is very helpful,” she said.
“This just will provide the flexibility that’s needed,” Dickson said.
Herbert has said masks will be required at all Utah schools, including for students, teachers, staff and any visitors to the schools. And, that they will be provided for every student.
On Thursday, he announced some “commonsense exceptions” to the rule, saying masks won’t be required if proper social distancing can be accommodated, as well as during lunch. Exceptions will also be made for very young children and those with disabilities that “make it awkward or difficult to wear a mask,” Herbert said.
Mark Huntsman, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education, said the governor’s announcement creates the possibility of more options for Salt Lake families.
“Any time a parent has options is a good thing so I would say it’s progress and a betterment,” Huntsman said.
COVID-19 still on the rise in Utah
The Utah Department of Health reported an increase of 954 cases on Thursday, but the new daily record number includes 251 cases that were the result of antigen testing since early June, 50 cases diagnosed the first week of July and 246 cases that were diagnosed earlier this week.
That leaves 407 newly diagnosed cases of COVID-19 since Wednesday.
The total number of detected cases in Utah is now 31,845
State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said the latest numbers, which include results from antigen tests where active infection is detected, give “the most accurate picture of the current outbreak.”
The state has tested more than 439,845 people so far and the rolling seven-day average positivity rate is 10.4%, with a seven-day average of 619 new cases per day.
“There’s a lot of anxiety out there ... people wondering how we’ll survive the economy, how we will open schools, will I catch the virus, will my children be influenced by the vaccine in how and what they are permitted to do in life,” Herbert said.
“We have a lot of challenges out there,” he said, adding, “I do believe we can turn the tide.”
Herbert reiterated his previous challenge for the state to reduce the seven-day rolling average to 500 daily cases or fewer by Aug. 1, but stood behind his decisions to not implement a statewide mask mandate.
“I’d much rather do this on a voluntary basis, we’d get the same outcome,” he said.
Wearing masks, Herbert said, will “minimize the risk to others” and Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties have already seen an impact with mandatory requirements in each of those locations.
“The end result is lower incidence,” he said, adding that everyone has the same goal — to slow and stop the spread of COVID-19.
Dr. Tom Miller, chief medical officer at University of Utah Health, said, “no one likes to have a mandate.”
“We know that masks work to avoid spreading disease. That’s why surgeons wear them,” he said, adding that “we don’t have to put them on forever.”
“Put them on now and let’s keep them on,” Miller said. “Masks are our medicine right now, until we have an effective treatment or a vaccine. Let’s be mask missionaries.”
Herbert acknowledged the sacrifice and inconvenience imposed by masks, but said “one cannot claim to love one’s neighbor while putting them at risk.”
Utah is one of 37 states that have had surges of infection after several weeks of a lull due to various stages of lockdowns early on in the pandemic. Herbert said none of them are as well-situated as Utah, particularly when it comes to the low death rate and current economic vitality.
“The sooner we slow this down, the sooner we can get back to normal,” he said, adding that “the problem can’t be solved if we have a division, or divisions in the ranks.”
The health department reported one new death due to COVID-19 on Thursday, a Salt Lake County woman between the ages of 65 and 84 who was living in a long-term care facility when she died.
The state considers at least 19,214 of detected cases of COVID-19 in Utah to be recovered by now, and there are 199 people currently hospitalized with disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:
- Salt Lake County, 15,655; 1,056 hospitalized; 133 deaths.
- Utah County, 5,794; 287 hospitalized; 30 deaths.
- Southwest Utah, 2,239; 128 hospitalized; 19 deaths.
- Davis County, 2,113; 123 hospitalized; 7 deaths.
- Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 1,837; 72 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
- Weber-Morgan, 1,829; 116 hospitalized; 18 deaths.
- Summit County, 605; 49 hospitalized; 1 death.
- San Juan County, 494; 62 hospitalized; 18 deaths.
- Wasatch County, 472; 21 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
- Tooele County, 387; 17 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Central Utah, 284; 18 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 82; 6 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Southeast Utah, 54; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.