'Things have changed': Government leaders, schools limit public gatherings to slow virus' spread

'Things have changed': Government leaders, schools limit public gatherings to slow virus' spread

(Carter Williams, KSL.com)

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SALT LAKE CITY — In an effort to take proactive steps to stop the potential spread of the new coronavirus, Gov. Gary Herbert announced a recommendation to limit mass public gatherings in Utah to 100 people for at least the next two weeks, beginning Monday.

That does not include public schools, which will remain open for the most part. Meanwhile, several Utah colleges and universities announced Thursday steps to move to online courses as events on campuses are halted.

"I think everyone understands that things have changed in the last 24 hours in a significant way," Herbert said, as he stood in front of a large screen displaying the slowly rising number of reported COVID-19 cases and fatalities across the globe.

Speaking from the State of Utah Emergency Operations Center on Thursday afternoon, he told reporters, "We're not seeing a community spread of the virus, which is good news. But we do know — based on the evidence we see here — that spread is going to occur, so we're taking significant action to amplify what we've already been doing."

Herbert also recommended that individuals over age 60 and people who are immunocompromised not participate in gatherings with more than 20 people, that visitors should not have access to long-term care facilities, and that employees and visitors of those facilities should be monitored for COVID-19.

His recommendations came after a second Utah Jazz player tested positive for the novel coronavirus Thursday, upping the number of confirmed cases in the state to five. It also followed an announcement from Murray School District officials that it was canceling classes Friday after officials were made aware of "potential direct contact exposure to COVID-19 within the district."

I want to be very clear: We're not making these decisions today because things are really bad; we're making these decisions today to make sure that things don't get really bad.

–Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox

Herbert, along with several of Utah's top health and academic leaders, gathered Thursday to address how Utah's public school and higher education systems will move forward amid concerns of the coronavirus spreading.

Despite the recent climb in U.S. cases, Utah officials insisted measures recommended throughout the state, including schools, are a precautionary effort.

"I want to be very clear: We're not making these decisions today because things are really bad; we're making these decisions today to make sure that things don't get really bad," said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

Public schools

With the exception of the Murray School District, Utah's K-12 public schools will remain open with measures to curtail any possible outbreak, said Utah State Board of Education Superintendent Sydnee Dickson.

"That may come in the future, in the very near future, but today, we're not making that decision," she said. "We want to be clear that closing a school is a local decision that will be coordinated and supported by the state."

That said, there have been a few changes made. The board has banned all school-related out-of-state travel for the next two weeks. Dickson recommended that schools coordinate lunch hours in a way that a cafeteria isn't filled at the same time.

She also recommended that schools postpone school assemblies and athletic events. Shortly after she spoke, the Utah High School Activities Association announced it had suspended the state debate tournament planned for the weekend and all statewide activities for two weeks, beginning Monday.

"I must reiterate to all schools: Please do not attempt to close a school unless your local health officers have been working with you and helping direct you to do so," Dickson said. "Closing a school out of anxiety or fear and not because of a health officer in collaboration, who deems it necessary, can have ripple effects. Not just throughout your community, but throughout the entire state."

Murray School District

Murray School District officials say the decision to close its schools came after officials became aware of "potential direct contact exposure to COVID-19 within the district."

In a prepared statement, district officials said they were made aware of this contact Thursday morning and that schools will be closed starting Friday. In addition, parents were allowed to pick up their students early Thursday if they chose.

They added students and teachers who may have had direct contact with the individual haven't shown signs or symptoms of having the novel coronavirus.

"However because we are concerned about the health and safety of our students and staff, we are exercising an abundance of caution," the statement says.


Utah Catholic Schools

Beginning on Friday, all Catholic schools in Utah will hold classes remotely, Mark Longe, superintendent of Utah Catholic Schools announced via email on Thursday. Individual schools will reach out to parents and provide further instruction for students.

Students will work remotely through the end of the month. There are no confirmed COVID-19 cases in any of the schools, however, some parents and students are under quarantine for possible exposure to the virus.

"Thank you in advance for your understanding and patience during this difficult time, and we ask that you join me in prayer for a quick end to this crisis," Longe wrote in an email to parents.


Higher education

Citing Herbert's recommendations, several Utah universities and colleges announced closures and shifts to online courses instead of in-person courses.

"The safety of our students is just paramount," said Utah Board of Regents Chair Harris Simmons.

Officials said there has not been an official decision on commencement ceremonies at this time.

Brigham Young Univeristy

University officials tweeted that Friday, Monday and Tuesday classes at BYU's Provo and Salt Lake City campuses are canceled. Classes will resume remotely on Wednesday. College deans will communicate with departments regarding classes that can't be conducted remotely. Officials added that students should "consider leaving campus and returning home" for the remainder of the semester while continuing classes online.


LDS Business College

All in-person meetings are canceled for Monday and Tuesday and classes will begin again on Wednesday and conducted remotely, the school announced on Thursday. Online classes will continue as normal.

Commencement is canceled and a modified ceremony will be broadcast, details for which will be provided at a later date.

Out-of-state students or those not from Salt Lake City were given the option to return home, since all classes are now online. For students who choose to stay in town, on-campus services will still be available.

Weekly devotionals will no longer be held in-person but will be broadcast at 11:15 a.m. every Tuesday.

Salt Lake Community College

In a letter to students, school officials wrote they will switch to online courses beginning March 23 through the remainder of the semester ending May 7. In addition, the college has canceled, postponed or limited school-sponsored events or events scheduled on its campus between now through the end of March.

Athletic competitions, if played, will be limited to only athletes, coaches, administrators, staff and medical staff. The administration said it would provide future updates no later than April 1.


Southern Utah University

Campus buildings will remain open, but classes will shift to online-only beginning March 23 through the remainder of the semester. The university begins its spring break after Friday's classes and is asking students to remain in Cedar City and not travel during spring break to avoid potential exposure.

"In the spirit of keeping students and the community healthy, effective immediately, the University will restrict any event on campus and large gatherings will be postponed, canceled, or offered virtually," the university added in a statement.


University of Utah

Students are currently on spring break; however, Monday and Tuesday classes are canceled. The University of Utah will transition to online classes starting Wednesday and continuing through the rest of the spring semester.

"We are also restricting large gatherings at university-sponsored events. We are restricting travel in our faculty and our staff," said University of Utah President Ruth Watkins.


Utah State University

Utah State University will move classes online, beginning Wednesday. Classes scheduled for Friday, Monday and Tuesday will be canceled to allow faculty and staff to move their classes online, USU President Noelle Cockett said.

The university has canceled events either sponsored by the university or held on its campus, she added. It has also canceled all nonessential university travel.

"Unprecedented times require unprecedented actions," Cockett said. "We are working toward implementing actions rather than wishing later we had been implementing more precautions."

Utah Valley University

Utah Valley University announced it will begin offering most of its current face-to-face courses in an online format on March 23. That will last through the end of the semester and final exams.

It also announced all of its university-sponsored events, conferences or large gatherings scheduled between Monday and May 1 are either postponed or canceled.


Weber State University

All classes at Weber State University will be suspended from March 13-17 to give faculty and staff members time to transition to online classes, according to an email sent to students Thursday.

Classes will be held online or remotely starting March 18, the email said.

Westminster College

Westminster College officials also announced Thursday morning that all classes and events scheduled on campus are canceled up until March 27. Classes will resume remotely beginning March 23 and will remain remote until at least March 27.

Coronavirus updates:

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Gov. Gary Herbert recommended that all public schools, colleges and universities in Utah suspend in-person classes amid concerns of COVID-19. This information has been corrected.


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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.


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