The president of the largest teacher’s union in Utah on Thursday 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.
Representatives from the three local school districts 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.
Matthews said the call to transition to remote learning was made with teacher safety in mind.
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 implemented to keep students and staff safe.
“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 declined to comment until learning more about the Utah Education Association’s stance.
North Summit Superintendent Jerre Holmes said the 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 its 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 is scheduled to meet next on Nov. 12.
“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 school system that has been hit hardest by COVID-19 recently.
State data, which can lag behind other sources of data, shows eight active cases among South Summit students. The Park City School District reported on Friday it had 10 active cases among students. The district does not report cases among its teachers.
A representative from the Park City Education Association said the local teachers’ union would reserve comment until it had reviewed the resolution from the Utah Education Association and surveyed its membership.
A representative of the Park City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, a much smaller union of Park City teachers, said that union would strongly consider a similar move.
“We definitely have been considering similar things like that, of making requests of districts for some kind of leave,” said Brad Asay, president of the Utah Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “Personally, we’d like everything to go online (so) we have assurances that people will be safe.”
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 local 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 gatherings.
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.”