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Utah teachers, parents rally for safe reopening of schools

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Katie Isaia, a fifth-grade teacher at Settlement Canyon Elementary School in Tooele, attends a Utah Safe Schools Mask-In urging the governor’s leadership in school reopenings at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 23, 2020.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Parents and teachers rallied at the state Capitol Thursday morning to urge schools to enforce mask wearing and to implement other safety policies recommended by health officials as the state prepares to reopen classrooms this fall.

More than 100 from across the state spread out across the lawn leading up to the Capitol’s front steps for the rally organized by Utah Safe Schools. Some carried signs affirming the importance of teachers and calling for them to be protected; others waved posters in the air while cheering speakers on.

“We have people cramming into buildings protesting wearing a mask to protect others and we want to put 30 kids into a classroom with a gallon of hand sanitizer and say good luck?” said sixth grade teacher Wendy Moss. “It’s just not good enough.

“It’s not good enough for our kids, it’s not good enough for our teachers, it’s not good enough for all of our amazing staff.”

Schools need to reopen safely and the decisions and structures guiding reopening need to be put into place by the health experts, she said, citing masks, social distancing when possible and implementing air filtration systems as examples.

Moss said the plans that school districts are currently drawing up need to be reviewed by doctors who’ve been studying COVID-19 to make sure schools are as safe as they can be.

“Teachers are scared. Teachers are buying air filters for their rooms out of their own pockets,” she said, voice heavy with emotion. “It’s just so wrong. They should be provided with the things they need to feel safe and to make their kids safe.”

At several points throughout the morning a chorus of honking punctuated the speakers as a caravan of cars drove past the Capitol in support of the teachers and their goal to reopen schools safely. The crowd gathered across the lawn cheered and waved as the cars streamed past. Moss said the caravan was also organized by a teacher.

One car had the words, “We are writing wills and lesson plans” scrawled on the back window. Another, parked in a nearby lot, had two signs attached to the vehicle reading, “I can’t teach science if adults distrust it,” and “Please help.”

“We are not calling for schools not to open. We are calling for schools to open with the most safe plans possible,” said teacher and rally organizer Steven Phelps. “To follow the advice of the experts. We are not saying don’t reopen. We are saying reopen safely. We are saying protect the lives of students and teachers.”

Parents also voiced their concerns Thursday.

Emily Johnson grew up in the Jordan School District and her kids attend school there now. She said she has a vested interest in the success of public schools. But she laid out a bleak picture as to what could happen if school districts don’t lock in place the necessary precautions for fall.

“Schools will be opening and closing regularly or shut down completely all over again,” Johnson said. “Teachers will be changing regularly and often, classes will be canceled day by day, parents will be forced to take leave from work to quarantine or take care of sick children. The psychological effects of seeing friends and colleagues ill and the fear associated with that will be crippling.”

She urged Gov. Gary Herbert to step up and help make sure all schools have at least the “minimum standards of safety” in place to protect students and staff before schools reopen — not just a select few.

“We’ve been told that our feelings don’t matter and our needs don’t matter and we’ve been given very few options for our kids’ education,” she said. “This has been one of the most frustrating months to date with public schools as teachers and students have become political pawns.”

To a roar of cheers, Johnson said families should not have to choose between physical safety and education.

“No one knows better than teachers how to educate effectively. And no one knows better than infectious disease experts and public health officials how to safely reopen schools,” she said.

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani and Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, another teacher, echoed many of the same points.

Both called for the prioritization of science and data moving forward and cited the importance of safe learning.

Ghorbani said she’s scared to put her 5-year-old in kindergarten this fall, acknowledging that she at least has the resources and flexibility to probably make it work.

“I’m very concerned about the parents that do not have that kind of flexibility and the school districts that do not have the kind of resources they need to get the hand sanitizer, the abundance of masks, the custodians, the air filters — the basic bones that they need to make a safe school environment,” Ghorbani said.