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Teachers union: Utah districts ‘electing to ignore’ health recommendations amid spike

UEA calls on governor, State School Board for ‘clear, enforceable requirements’ based on medical opinion

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Corner Canyon High School in Draper is pictured on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Education Association says Utah school districts “are electing to ignore” state health department recommendations at a time COVID-19 cases are spiking.

On Friday, the Utah Department of Health reported 1,117 new cases — the largest daily increase in the state during the pandemic.

UEA called on Gov. Gary Herbert, the State School Board, local districts and the public to increase efforts to “increase state oversight and compliance measures to protect the health and safety of public school students, educators and school staff.”

The letter notes that Herbert’s recent description of the spike of cases as a “red-flag warning.”

Such outcomes “were predictable given the lack of consistent and enforceable health mandates for Utah public schools,” the letter states.

It also notes that teachers reported to work believing the Utah Department of Health guidelines for COVID-19 would be followed.

“We are hearing from many teachers who say they feel helpless, disrespected and unsafe. We call on you to protect students, educators and school staff by establishing clear, enforceable requirements based on guidance from health professionals.”

Matthews, in an interview Friday, said there is great urgency to take action as cases spike in some school communities.

“It’s impacting the adults in the schools. It’s impacting our teachers and their families,” she said.

Among them is Corner Canyon High School career and technical education teacher Charri Jensen, who is on a ventilator in an intensive care unit at a local hospital after contracting COVID-19, according to her daughter Talesha Jensen.

Learning of the teacher’s illness and condition “broke my heart,” Matthews said. 

“This is a real virus and needs real attention,” she said.

The association’s letter to the governor comes as two Salt Lake County school districts — Canyons and Jordan — took steps this week to address spikes in COVID-19 cases in high schools.

Earlier this week, Corner Canyon High School had 42 confirmed cases of COVID-19, Canyons School District Superintendent Rick Robins told the school board.

On Sept. 11, the district put in place a split schedule that started on Tuesday that reduces student numbers in the school building by roughly half each day. At first, the schedule was to remain in place for a week, but it has been extended until at least Sept. 25.

The Salt Lake County Health Department recommended that the school go further and shift to online learning for two weeks, the incubation period of the virus, a spokesman said.

According to the county health department dashboard, numbers of cases associated with the Canyons District have risen throughout the week, although the county data does not specify numbers of cases at schools other than to note when they exceed 15 cases or are below 15.

Otherwise, the number of cases associated with the district had climbed to 143 over the past two weeks, according to the dashboard.

On Wednesday, Jordan District officials elected to close Riverton High School for two days for deep cleaning, with one of the days reserved for online learning, and to resume the regular school schedule on Monday. Earlier this week, numbers of COVID-19 cases associated with the school exceeded the 15-plus case threshold when state health authorities recommend that schools take specific actions in consultation with local health officials.

The county health department had recommended a more urgent course, that the school shift to online learning for two weeks, close for deep cleaning and call off school activities.

The UEA also sent a letter to the Utah State Board of Education, calling on it to “establish stronger requirements for local boards of education.”

The letter states that the State School Board, working with Herbert and the Utah Department of Health, “must protect educators, staff and students by taking stronger action to establish clear health requirements for local boards of education. School districts can then work with local health departments to implement these requirements.”

UEA also wants local school boards to address additional work demands on teachers. 

“Teachers in many school districts are telling us they feel overworked and overwhelmed with all the demands of both in-person and online learning. Local school boards must critically review the demands placed on teachers, listen to their concerns and work with them to create solutions,” a press release states.

The public also has a role to play in keeping schools open by following the advice of public health officials, the state’s largest teacher association said.

Teachers know and research shows in-person teaching and learning is best for both students and teachers, Matthews said.

“Health concerns and workload demands are forcing good teachers to reconsider their chosen profession, putting student learning at risk. Until all of us — the governor, the State Board of Education, local school boards and the general public — come together and do our part, we risk losing the ground we’ve gained in reopening our schools and providing our students with the quality education they deserve,” Matthews said in a statement.