Utah teacher’s union calls on schools to go remote amid COVID spike

The Park Record.

The president of the largest teacher’s union in Utah on Friday called on school districts to close secondary schools between Thanksgiving and Christmas to prevent the risk of COVID-19 spreading quickly through schools after families convene for the holidays.

“We’re calling for secondary schools to be remote immediately in high (transmission) areas — that’s pretty much the whole state — and especially between the Thanksgiving and winter breaks,” said Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews. She added that the union was modeling its request on similar moves made by colleges and universities.

“Our educators are not expendable,” she said.

The move was quickly seconded by the state’s second largest teacher’s union, which issued a statement Monday saying that Gov. Gary Herbert’s latest emergency measures fail to protect faculty and staff in public schools.

Those measures include canceling many extracurricular activities and expanding testing in higher education settings and for those who continue to participate in allowed activities, like championship sports games.

A press release from the state Department of Health accompanying the new public health order indicated officials there would expand rapid asymptomatic testing to high school teachers throughout Utah. Additional information about the testing program was not immediately available.

Union officials are saying that isn’t enough.

“We stated last week that employees will begin to take their safety into their own hands if the Governor did not protect them by mandating that our public schools go online until infection rates decrease substantially or we have a wide spread vaccine available,” said the Utah chapter of the American Federation of Teachers in a statement. “(Gov. Herbert) utterly failed to take action to protect public school employees.”

Officials from the three local school districts on Friday did not commit to switching to remote learning, though they noted that the districts would have to adapt to the changing realities of the pandemic.

A common refrain, also echoed by the state superintendent of education and some members of the teacher’s unions, is that rates of transmission of COVID-19 in the classroom appear to be low, but that students may engage in unsafe behavior when they’re not monitored by teachers.

One statewide union that has a small presence at Park City High School, the American Federation of Teachers, has said conditions in schools are unsafe because social distancing is impossible in classrooms.

Park City Board of Education President Andrew Caplan declined to say whether the Park City School District would transition to remote learning, but commended the district’s COVID protocols in keeping students and staff safe so far.

“From my view, we have been following state protocols throughout the year and have seen very low case counts at our schools versus in the community at large,” Caplan said.

Park City Superintendent Jill Gildea said the district uses all available data to weigh the risks and benefits of remaining open, working with state and local health officials and under guidance from the state board of education in evaluating conditions at schools.

“It is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all decision and we intend to adapt to changing conditions and guidance as necessary when determining whether to remain open or move to hybrid or remote modality,” Gildea wrote in an email Friday.

North Summit Superintendent Jerre Holmes said that district was not considering transitioning to remote learning.

“We have had one teacher case in our first quarter of school,” Holmes wrote in an email to The Park Record. “We are not considering that option today, but every day is a new day.”

South Summit Superintendent Shad Sorenson said the district’s highest priority is the safety and well-being of students and employees.

“We are very concerned with the increasing numbers of positive COVID-19 cases in our state and community,” Sorenson wrote in an email to The Park Record.

He said any decision to change from the current school schedule would be made in consultation with the Summit County Health Department and with the approval of the local school board, which was scheduled to meet next on Thursday.

“Teachers are expressing that the blended learning model we have implemented is successful and better for learning than completely online,” Sorenson wrote. “The District will strive to maintain this model as long as possible without putting our staff and students’ health at jeopardy.”

Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough has said that the South Summit School District has been the local school system that has been hit hardest by COVID-19 recently.

State data, which can lag behind other sources of data, showed Tuesday that there were eight active cases among South Summit students, the same number reported Friday.

The Park City School District reported on its own COVID data dashboard Monday it had 15 active cases among students. The district does not publicly report cases among its teachers or staff members, but Gildea said staff members are working to incorporate that data in the public report and that the district uses the number of adult cases at a school when evaluating the overall COVID situation there.

A representative from the Park City Education Association said the largest local teachers’ union supports the UEA’s push for remote learning between Thanksgiving and Holiday Break as one of many initiatives for teacher safety, including increased testing programs.

A representative of the Park City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, a much smaller and newer union of Park City teachers, said that union supports the UEA’s call to go to remote learning in high transmission areas.

In a press release, the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers said it agreed with the bulk of UEA’s request, but suggested it might go further to secure remote learning options.

“AFT Utah strongly believes that if Governor Herbert and the school boards do not move to at-home instruction not only will faculty and staff make the decision to leave the profession, but employees may likely take action such as walk outs, sick outs, and strikes to ensure their own protection,” the release states.

About a dozen Park City teachers recently joined the American Federation of Teachers because, in part, they said the Park City Education Association did not adequately represent their concerns about the pandemic to the Park City Board of Education.

Before schools reconvened in the fall, teachers and community members were concerned that the return of in-person schooling would lead to a huge surge in COVID-19 cases. That surge generally has not materialized in Summit County.

But Matthews said the holidays have a potential to change the dynamics of the pandemic as families gather to celebrate.

Health officials have said the latest surge in cases within the state has been tied to small social gatherings and family get-togethers.

On Friday, the state recorded its second record-breaking day of new cases in a row. The 2,987 cases beat the previous record, 2,807, set on Thursday.

Matthews worried that schools would be the sites of rampant spread after students and teachers returned from the Thanksgiving holiday.

“I think the latest guidelines from the state Department of Health that exempted schools from the guidelines of no gatherings more than 10 (people) — I think that didn’t sit well with many of our educators, as if they are more expendable than others,” Matthews said. “And we’re seeing the numbers rise and the virus rise at such an alarming rate that we realize that there really does need to be something drastic moving into this holiday time.”


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