SALT LAKE CITY — As school districts around the country finalize plans for the upcoming school year, staying safe from COVID-19 dominates discussions. Policymakers are grappling with whether schools will physically welcome students, continue online learning or take a hybrid approach combining elements of both. 

Concerns reach well beyond student health and safety. Some parents and teachers say they’re leery of returning to school until they feel reassured schools can safely open without further fueling a pandemic that has devastated families and economies.

The issue is the novel coronavirus that’s infected more than 15 million worldwide, including 3.82 million In the United States, where more than 143,000 have died. Those numbers include more than 37,000 infections in Utah and at least 273 deaths.

While back-to-school plans vary across communities, some worries are shared. Teachers, many in high-risk categories should they get COVID-19, wonder if returning to the classroom means walking into danger. They have a lot of questions: What happens when the inevitable exposure occurs? Who quarantines? How do I stretch my day to teach in-person and also online. Can anyone really social distance in a crowded school? How do I address student anxiety? And the big one: Are proposed safety measures enough?

While educators and administrators are focusing on how schools will work in an unprecedented situation for Utah’s 667,000 students, Marci Bleckert is focused on her daughter. Marlee starts seventh grade this fall and her mom questions how public officials have determined it is safe to reopen schools as COVID-19 cases are climbing. There were only a handful of cases back when Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced a halt to in-school instruction in mid-March.

“I think it’s crazy that we closed down the schools when we had less than 10 people infected and now we have hundreds, you know, thousands of people, and we’re opening. So to me, it’s such conflicting information,” Bleckert said.

“How does that make sense? It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Marci and Marlee Bleckert are photographed in their Millcreek home on Thursday, July 23, 2020. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

What does make sense, according to medical experts, is forming plans around data on disease spread in an area.

“Two questions should drive decisions on whether it’s safe to return to school: How much virus is in the community? And are we willing to do the hard work needed to stop the spread?” said pediatrician Dr. Angelo Giardino, chief medical officer at Primary Children’s Hospital and chairman of the University of Utah’s pediatrics department.

That hard work ranges from meticulous hygiene to wearing masks, disinfecting spaces and reconfiguring classrooms and even school buses to keep people apart.

I think we have to make the decision based on the facts we can get from our trusted advisers, like people from the Department of Health, from the school district, from the board of education —  and it needs to be based on facts on the ground in your local community,” Giardino said.

Utah public health officials have nearly completed a COVID-19 school manual similar to their COVID-19 business manual, the goal to provide public health guidance and recommendations to schools so they can continue in-person learning as much as possible, a health official told the Deseret News.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said there are varying levels of risk depending on how kids go back to school. Remote learning is the most physically safe, followed by a hybrid of in-person learning and distance learning. A return to school without safety modifications is riskiest. State guidance calls for an array of environmental and personal hygiene practices intended to curb the spread of infectious disease, including wearing masks.

While distance learning keeps students and teachers safe, “it exacerbates inequities in our system, especially with the digital divide. There are burdens on families, our lack of universal day care, food inequities,” Dickson said.

Dangerous spread

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says online school is the safest. But educational research suggests most kids learn best in classrooms with in-person instruction and experts say economic recovery hinges on freeing parents to return to work. 

“Part of reopening the economy, of reopening businesses is we have to first reopen schools and reopen child care,” said John Bailey, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

Michael Lee, Skyline High School custodian, cleans a classroom to get ready for the start of school at Skyline High School in Millcreek on Thursday, July 23, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The challenge is reducing risk.

In a joint statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the School Superintendents Association and others said “returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children,” but agreed decisions must be based on evidence and must focus on communities’ situations.

Public health should say “when,” the statement said, while educators and administrators should say “how” kids return to school.

They noted that “a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return-to-school decisions.” People with strong, but differing feelings about the pending school year often use the same studies to bolster their positions.

Research from South Korea says kids ages 10 to 19 easily spread the virus to others, which strengthens the call to be careful. Others counter it means younger kids aren’t apt to spread the disease. They also point to findings that young students are less likely to become seriously ill with COVID-19, though health experts like Giardino and pediatrician Dr. Paul Wirkus, head of the Utah chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, note some youngsters get very sick.

“Depending on the kid’s baseline health, it could be a very serious infection for them. So I don’t think it’s as innocent as everybody says. ... I would not be anxious to see children exposed to a virus that we just learned about a couple months ago,” Giardino said.

Most agree teachers and staff are in a different and higher risk group than students, especially if they’re older or have chronic medical conditions.

An American Enterprise Institute report said 1 in 5 teachers and 1 in 4 principals nationally are over age 55 and could face significant risk with COVID-19. Cafeteria staff, custodians and other support staff could be similarly imperiled. 

It’s not just a question of whether children can congregate, but whether adults can congregate with them, said Jennifer Glass, executive director of the Council on Contemporary Families and a professor at the University of Texas-Austin.

“It’s really unfair to assume that because children have relatively low fatality rates and relatively low rates of complications, all other personnel in schools are somehow expendable,” she said, adding that children might infect their families, including elderly and otherwise at-risk relatives. 

Teachers and parents attend a Utah Safe Schools Mask-In to urge the governor’s leadership in school reopenings at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 23, 2020. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Teachers push back

As the new school year nears, some teachers are challenging plans they perceive put them and students at risk.

In Florida, teacher unions sued to block Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order that schools reopen despite the Sunshine State’s sustained surge in COVID-19 cases. 

Colorado teachers may not report for work unless their criteria for opening schools are met.

In Utah, a group of teachers in Canyons School District penned an eight-page letter to Superintendent Rick Robins and the school board, concerned that “limited” measures the school district has adopted to protect school communities are “fundamentally inadequate to address the hazards presented by COVID-19.”

“We are dedicated educators who miss our students and we look forward to getting back into our classrooms. However, a return to in-person learning must be done safely for all — including teachers,” they wrote, adding that “opening schools full-time when cases are climbing and nearly 1 in 4 teachers are at high risk requires us to participate in a social and epidemiological experiment that even members of the board concede may well result in casualties.”

Alta High School teacher Matthew Schilling — among about 50 Canyons educators who’ve signed the letter — said teachers worry the plan has been rushed and meets neither CDC guidelines nor guidance developed by Leavitt Partners, which has advised Utah’s public higher education and K-12 school systems on reopening.

Leavitt Partners outline seven factors to consider: movement, duration, proximity, group size, respiratory output, touch and congestion.

While some hail successful school openings in Europe and elsewhere, others call the comparison flawed because many of those countries have quelled the pandemic. America’s in the thick of it.

“I think people underestimated the real fears that teachers have — well-founded fears,” said Bailey. “We should not ask a teacher ever to make a decision between coming to school and putting their lives at risk. We should be spending the summer making sure those teachers (at high risk) have new roles, new assignments they can do online from the safety of their home.

“But I worry because we’ve squandered the couple of months when we could be doing that, it’s not surprising to see teachers expressing huge amounts of concerns about walking into a building where they could be in danger.”

A teacher protests, urging masks in schools.
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

A path forward

Whatever officials decide, COVID-19 has changed school, at least short-term.

“Educationally, it would be really great if kids could go back and it was like it was before March of 2020, but that’s not realistic,” said Giardino.

States are adapting to their circumstances:

  • Some of the nation’s largest school districts have opted to start the school year with online instruction, including Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, Denver Public Schools and Mesa (Arizona) Public Schools.
  • Idaho expects to return to a regular class schedule, but that could change. Per capita, the state of 1.8 million is now No. 8 for COVID-19 spread and has 224 people hospitalized, a number that surpasses more populous neighbors like Utah.
  • Texas schools are supposed to be in-person again within a month of school’s start, though districts can request an extension.
  • Hawaii and New Mexico are among states offering hybrid online and in-person starts. 
  • In California, 32 of 58 counties haven’t reached public health goals and will start the year remotely.
  • Some districts are going every other week, while others plan limited in-person weeks.
  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he won’t make a firm decision about in-person classes until September.

Utah public schools will offer a mix of approaches, from traditional classroom instruction to blended online and in-person learning, remote learning and supporting home schooling.

The Salt Lake City Board of Education has yet to vote on its instructional plan, except to determine the school year will start Sept. 8, two weeks after most other Utah schools. Administrators have proposed the district continue in distance mode for at least the first quarter, ending Oct. 30.

Earlier this month, Gov. Gary Herbert ordered students, teachers, employees and visitors to wear face masks in schools and on school buses. State education officials developed a framework and set an Aug. 1 deadline for school districts and public charter schools to submit plans about how they will meet state safety guidelines and requirements such as enhanced hygiene and safety, monitoring for outbreaks and how a school would close should one occur.

State education officials say the document outlines considerations schools must address and leaves the “how” up to district and charter school boards.

Worried parents

Bleckert plans to team up with a few other Millcreek families whose seventh-grade daughters attend the same junior high school to facilitate their learning at home — a plan born out of concern for their physical and mental health.

One parent will be in charge of each day’s instruction based on their area of expertise and the group plans to hire a math tutor to teach math. Fridays will be a “mental health day,” when the small group will take field trips, hikes or go skiing.

Each family will designate an area of their home where students will work together. Students will pack a lunch and show up ready to learn, no pajamas.

The girls are friends but the parents decided to work together because each family had insisted their children take their studies seriously when schools closed to in-person learning.

“We didn’t just let them say, ‘Hey, this is too hard,’ ” Bleckert said. “In fact, all of our kids excelled that last term because we were super focused and super diligent on making sure their homework was done, things were turned in and that they were learning.” 

The group, which will rely on Granite School District’s online learning resources, was intentionally kept small to facilitate car rides and to limit exposure to COVID-19.

“It’s our bubble so if someone gets sick, it’s pretty easy to figure out contact tracing,” Bleckert said.

The families want the girls to return to school when conditions improve. Bleckert said the plan will help working parents focus on their duties, too.

She noted it will be more work for the parents involved, but the approach will give their daughters consistency. It is possible that in-person learning in schools will be recessed due to outbreaks and students will have to return to remote learning, even temporarily.

“Whatever fluctuations happen at school … we’ve got our schedule figured out,” she said.

Statewide, parents are pondering their own decisions and finding ways to express their concerns and wishes, including rallies in support of opening schools — as long as it’s done safely.

A recent rally by Safe Schools Utah at the state Capitol urged schools to enforce mask wearing and implement other safety measures recommended by health officials. Some picketers carried signs calling for safe working conditions for teachers.

Bleckert said she understands that schools have safety plans but she worries about students’ anxiety as they navigate hallways marked with signage or floor decals to direct traffic. She worries that students and educators won’t be able to communicate well while wearing face masks. They won’t be able to hug their friends.

“That’s going to be a super stressful environment for these poor kids,” she said.

Bleckert said she remembers the first time she went to a grocery store after schools and most businesses shuttered.

“Everybody’s wearing masks and everybody’s scared. It was scary for me. So how can I expect my 12-year-old to go back with hundreds — well thousands — of kids?”

Teachers, parents and students maintain social distancing guidelines while attending a Utah Safe Schools Mask-In to urge the governor’s leadership in school reopenings at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 23, 2020. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

So many questions

Utah’s education system has an inescapable math problem: 1 in 5 Utahns is a school-age child.

Despite efforts to boost state funding of public schools, Utah class sizes remain among the highest in the nation and per-pupil funding the lowest.

Some of the state’s pandemic challenges could be expensive to solve.

Social distancing doesn’t work in most Utah schools because there’s not enough square footage to accommodate students and educators based on preventing virus spread. The Canyons District teachers said it would take about 1,400 square feet in a classroom to keep 40 students 6 feet apart.

As Robins, the Canyons superintendent, lamented in a recent school board meeting, “There is not a district in the state that will be able to comply with distancing. There is no way physically, in the parameters of our classrooms, to achieve 6-foot distancing with all students. If that is the recommendation that we go forward, that will require a split schedule. There is no way around that.”

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said classroom conditions in Utah public schools haven’t changed much since she taught sixth grade in Granite School District’s Orchard Elementary School back in the 1980s.

She had 39 students in her classroom — numbers not ideal for teaching and learning — and that also meant her classroom was a human petri dish.

It wasn’t a question of whether one sick student would spread his or her cold to their classmates — or to her — but a question of when.

COVID-19 is no cold. 

“Over the millennia we have been underfunded. We have not been given what we’ve needed to do our jobs. But I cannot remember ever once in the past 30 years thinking that this time it might cost me my life. This time, if a kid sneezes on me, I don’t catch their cold. I end up in the ICU,” Eskelsen Garcia said.

The Deseret News asked public school teachers what they worry about as districts make plans. The list was long, starting with “repeated exposure” of teachers in school buildings daily. Teachers had “if-this, then-what” questions, too, like what teachers and staff will do if they are exposed to COVID-19.

“Do we quarantine and use all our sick time?” a teacher asked. Should they plan on doing it with each possible exposure? And who should quarantine? Entire classes? Just those seated within so many feet? 

Teachers wonder what kind of personal protective equipment they’ll be provided and how they’ll find time to do all the cleaning and sanitizing needed or if they’ll get help. They want to know who will police whether parents send sick children to school and what happens if they can’t get picked up.

And those are just the health questions. One teacher said she worries about unrealistic expectations that she’ll be able to teach both in person and online every day if her district chooses a hybrid model.

“I am at higher risk, but I do just want to be back in my classroom with my littles, teaching,” the grade-school teacher said. “I can’t even fathom how I’m going to teach developmentally appropriate lessons using hands-on stuff if I have to teach via Zoom. Not to mention the online platforms are not geared for littles.” 

Marci and Marlee Bleckert speak in the kitchen of their Millcreek home on Thursday, July 23, 2020. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

What parents can do

Even young kids are hearing about the virus and the potential health risks, said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University. “Kids are seeing things about the pandemic,” she said. “You want them to get their information from you, as a parent.”

She recommends parents talk to their kids at the age-appropriate level, but explain the health concerns and steps being taken to keep them safe. A preschool-aged child might be reminded of when he was sick and had to stay home from school. “There’s a sickness going around now and we have to take extra care so people don’t get it and become really sick. We need to do things like make sure to wash our hands.”

“I do think those conversations are helpful, but not in a scary way,” she added.

Grade school kids can be reminded that when the family goes to the store, they wear masks to avoid spreading germs. At school, they’ll be wearing masks for the same reason. 

The conversation can be more nuanced and thorough with older kids.

Tama Leventhal, professor in Tuft University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, warns that young kids typically follow the rules adults give them, so it might be easier to get them to stay apart and wear their masks and wash their hands, with supervision. But older kids can drop their guard pretty quickly when they’re around friends, so they might be harder to keep in check.

Pediatrician Wirkus challenges the notion masks pose a health risk to children. Research has not found that among healthy kids at all, he said. “There’s no credible reports to show that that happens; the feelings of most people are more claustrophobia than anything else. It’s a matter of learning how to wear a mask and feel safe.” 

Wirkus said to let kids pick out masks they like and get used to wearing them. Show them how to wear them right. At school is not the time to first try wearing a mask or to explain why they are vital.

“Approach it in the spirit of we’re just trying to prevent people from getting sick. ‘Some people get seriously sick and we don’t want that to happen. So we’re just going to try to take care of each other,’ ” he said.

Perhaps the most important safety step parents can take, he noted, is keeping kids home if they are not well.

When asked what keeps her up at night, Dickson said: “I think about equity a lot. I think about our most vulnerable students. I think about what our teachers are facing as we return to school. They’re trying to build relationships with students, they’re trying to think about how to do so and keep in mind their own safety and the safety of their students.”

Physical health concerns aside, Dickson said Utah schools will spend time this fall helping students unpack their experiences with the pandemic and the sudden halt to in-school learning. It’s important that students feel safe, confident and connected, she said.

“We have underestimated the importance of that and we will be emphasizing that as we begin the school year. So if we are in remote situations, trying to do that is even more challenging, but that will be a big part of schooling,” she said.

“So what keeps me up at night is just making sure that we lean into the fall in a safe way, and can educate students, and that communities and parents won’t bring their politics into the school but really respect what our teachers and leaders are trying to do in keeping their kids safe and educating them well,” Dickson said.