State lawmaker questions whether Utah school reopening plans ‘too restrictive’
But state epidemiologist says ‘premature to say kids don’t suffer from any effects from COVID-19’
SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker questioned Wednesday whether school reopening plans are “too restrictive” given relatively low numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths among children.
“I’m highly concerned that we are maybe ... making a big deal out of something that’s not quite so big a deal for our young population. Of course we need to protect our teachers, especially those that are compromised,” Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, said during a meeting of the Utah Legislature’s Education Committee.
“So, how do we address that? And are we being too restrictive, especially with this young population that has very, very, very low risk?” asked Strong, who is a committee member.
State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said for every comment she receives that the state is being too restrictive, “I get another comment telling me that I am killing children by allowing them to go to school, neither of which are true.”
Dunn said it is “premature for us to say that kids don’t suffer from any effects from COVID-19 because they don’t die. I think there is certainly a possibility that there are other effects we just don’t know about yet. And of course we do know about MIS-C (multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children), which is a specific manifestation of COVID-19 in a pediatric population that does result in death.”
Dunn told committee members that as school’s reopen, the key public health goals are to provide safe learning and working environments for students, teachers and employees and to prevent spread of COVID-19.
That means students, teachers and employees must observe social distancing.
“We know that this is going to be difficult,” she said.
That’s where the statewide mask mandate in schools comes in, she said.
“Face masks, we know, prevent the spread of COVID-19. This really is one of our best tools we have right now, before we get a vaccine or good treatment for COVID-19, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools,” Dunn said.
Personal hygiene and stepped-up school cleaning protocols are crucial. Parents need to do their part by checking their children for symptoms daily and keeping them home when they are ill, she said.
It is critical that the state prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools “because what happens in a school can spread out to the community and eventually get to the vulnerable population that is more likely to suffer the most severe consequences from COVID-19 versus the young population,” Dunn said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson reported that a large portion of Utah public schools have reopened and thus far, there have been “very few bumps in the road.”
“Everybody is reporting happy children and happy teachers and everybody just grateful to be back together in whatever form that looks like,” Dickson said.
This school year is like no other and questions remain about how COVID-19 affects children, whether school safety plans will be sufficient to mitigate spread of the virus and how schools will handle outbreaks.
Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews expressed concerns about educators’ rights, their workloads as they juggle in-classroom and remote teaching and who teachers can turn to without fear of reprisal if the reopening plans fall short of keeping teachers and students safe.
“What is the oversight for these plans? What do we do and who do we turn to to get our issues solved when the mitigation strategies that our district has put forth are not being implemented in the safest of ways?” she asked.