SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Education on Thursday rejected several proposals requiring schools to take greater precautions against the coronavirus, including two that would limit the number of students in a classroom if the positive test rate in a community tops 5%.
The board voted 9-5 against mandates for students to have at least 30 square feet to themselves — or 20 square feet with a plexiglass barrier — if community spread spikes above the 5% reopening threshold set by the World Health Organization.
A series of other tweaks failed in the marathon meeting amid concerns from a majority of board members who said they feared the changes would take away power from individual school districts and place too heavy a burden on schools already scrambling to adapt.
But the board did move to require districts to draw plans and protocols for how they will respond in the event of an outbreak. The panel adjourned its daylong meeting Thursday about 11 p.m.
The changes come just weeks before the state’s 667,000 schoolchildren return to classrooms, online learning or a blend of the two. Teachers at recent demonstrations and at the board meeting earlier in the day called for greater preventive measures.
The state is allowing each school district to decide how to balance the intellectual and social development of its students against the public health risks, directing schools to allow for social distancing when possible.
Proponents of the stricter moves said they would help ensure students and employees can stay safe and avoid bringing the virus back home to parents or grandparents.
Board member Scott Hansen, who proposed most of the changes, said he believes the existing standards are too lenient and the changes would add teeth to the idea that social distancing is important.
“It does us no good to open the schools up and then immediately close or have to shift to another model due to positive cases,” Hansen said. “I think it’s late, but it’s not too late to do the right thing.”
Park City and 24 other districts — mostly in rural areas — will allow students to return full time. Another 16 will shorten days or divide students into groups attending in person on separate days.
The board has required them to offer remote learning for families who don’t feel comfortable sending kids to school. Only Salt Lake City remains fully online.
“What works in Salt Lake City might not work in rural areas where there are few or no cases,” said Scott Neilson, who voted against the failed changes. “Local control doesn’t go away because we have a pandemic. If anything, we need more of it.”
Neilson added he believes children from kindergarten through high school age have shown “extreme resilience” to falling sick with the virus.
Salt Lake City schools are the “prime example” of a district tailoring its plan to the outbreak in the state’s capital city, added board member Mark Marsh.
The 5% metric would help provide schools with guidance on when they could potentially loosen measures, Hansen said, calling it a “trigger to go both ways.” In smaller communities, the benchmark would be a case incidence rate greater than 10 in 100,000 due to community spread and not isolated outbreak. The tougher standards could also kick in, depending on other criteria set by an advisory board of doctors and public health officers advising the state board.
“It is very confusing to parents, to teachers and to students when one district is doing one thing with a lower positive rate than another district with a higher positive rate,” said board member Jennifer Graviet, a teacher. “It’s so confusing and it just feels anti-science. It’s the one thing that would help so much, to have some sort of metric.”
Utah education and public health leaders on Thursday also scrapped a plan allowing students exposed to the coronavirus to show up for school as long as they don’t have symptoms.
The move follows criticism from doctors, a teachers union and parents who said the previous guidelines, based on protocol for workers at essential businesses, could invite outbreaks in the state’s schools.
“Everybody wants to make sure that parents, students and teachers feel safe and are safe as they return to school,” state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said in announcing the change. The revamped guidance directs students, teachers and other school employees to stay home for two weeks if they’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive.
The change comes as Utah school districts scramble to finalize their plans for the return of students in what Dunn acknowledged will be an experiment. Gov. Gary Herbert ordered schools closed in April and instruction moved online, so health experts haven’t had a chance to learn how exactly the virus behaves in schools.
“There’s just so much we don’t know right now,” Dunn said.
Face coverings are not up for negotiation, however. Herbert has ordered masks to be worn in each and every classroom.
Several teachers on Thursday pleaded with the State School Board to set statewide standards, saying some districts aren’t going far enough to keep students and employees safe.
They noted their classrooms lack the proper ventilation, furniture and layout to observe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The instructors also questioned who will take their place at the front of the classroom if they fall sick, given a shortage of substitute teachers.
Caren Burns, a teacher at Beehive Elementary School in Kearns, urged the board to step in and require an alternating schedule in the Granite School District.
She said she was shocked Tuesday during school registration at the level of anxiety among students and parents. And she visited another teacher’s classroom to find the woman crying in frustration.
“I love the idea of giving local control, but I feel like our district is treating our plan like we’re a rural school district with no cases right now. In Granite, we have no social distancing in our district plan — zero at all,” Burns said, her voice catching. “This is a life-and-death situation, and our district is just refusing to look at that.”
State Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, urged the board to keep each Utah school at half-capacity until the community’s confirmed case rate dips below 5%.
“Districts, schools and superintendents have been fractured by the lack of one common goal,” Riebe told the board, saying she was addressing them as a mom and a teacher.
But representatives for the state’s charter schools and superintendents opposed any changes, saying the current plan allows schools to tailor responses to local needs and public health risks.
“Each plan is unique and meets the needs of the community,” said Lexi Cunningham with the Utah State Superintendents Association.
Royce Van Tassell, executive director at Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, agreed.
For example, low-income families whose children attend Santaquin’s C.S. Lewis Academy want students to return because both parents need to go back to work to make ends meet.
Tami Pyfer, the governor’s education adviser, said the spirit of unity between families and schools at the outset of the pandemic has since dissolved into division and insults. She urged compassion and patience.
Herbert, for his part, emphasized at a Thursday news conference that he has not ordered schools to reopen.
“These are local decisions and how they decide to open is their plan,” the governor told reporters.
The governor also acknowledged teachers’ concerns about personal protective equipment, saying each of 28,000 teachers and 16,000 other school employees will receive a set of five KN95 masks and two face shields.
At the state board meeting earlier Thursday, board member Laura Belnap questioned why Utah teachers are asking for protective equipment donations online if the state is providing enough masks.
State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said the necessary gear and hand sanitizer will arrive in classrooms in time for school and she has not heard concerns from principals or superintendents.
“I just think it’s informing the teachers of what they do or don’t have,” Dickson said.
Among the other failed changes were a proposal for administrators to provide proof they are coordinating with local health departments after Dickson and Hansen said several charter schools failed to work with health officers on reopening plans.
Others would have required plans for contact tracing; instructions for wearing masks and requirements for obtaining a waiver to not wear one; efforts to free up room on school buses; classroom air purifiers in certain circumstances; and giving local health authorities notice of large events like football games.
The board late Thursday also removed a requirement for a doctor’s note allowing a student who falls sick to return to school. Members said it would leave the business of setting quarantine and isolation guidelines to health departments, and could relieve pressure on doctors.