SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert announced Friday that all school districts across the state will enact a "soft closure" for two weeks starting Monday, effectively reversing a decision made the day before to keep public schools open amid concerns of COVID-19 spreading in the state.
During this closure, classes across all 41 school districts and 116 charter schools in the state will not be held in schools. Instead, school districts will have remote classes beginning Wednesday at the latest. After two weeks, officials will reevaluate and decide what to do going forward.
“We think this is prudent. This is based on good science. This is based on what we’ve learned from other areas of the country and around the world,” Herbert said. “We are not waiting. We are not sitting on the sidelines. We’re, in fact, very proactive in this effort to ensure we’ll have safe environments for our young people to learn, and to continue to progress, and minimize the spread of this coronavirus in the state of Utah.”
Parents and students will be receiving information from their respective school districts over the next few days and districts will likely handle the soft closure in different ways, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said. Spring breaks won’t be impacted and will remain as scheduled, even if that is during the dismissal period.
Schools will remain open during the two-week soft closure for students to retrieve personal items or pick up assignments. Some instructors may be available for brief one-on-one tutoring or to answer homework questions, according to a statement issued Saturday by the governor's office.
"It is important to note that schools will not provide childcare of any kind," the statement reads.
We are not waiting. We are not sitting on the sidelines. We’re, in fact, very proactive in this effort to ensure we’ll have safe environments for our young people to learn ... and minimize the spread of this coronavirus in the state of Utah.
–Utah Gov. Gary Herbert
Sydnee Dickson, state superintendent for the Utah State Board of Education, explained that the meals may be delivered in a grab-and-go system. There will also be one-on-one or small tutoring groups when needed, and services will still be provided for students with disabilities.
She added students won’t need to clean out their lockers and that the school year isn’t over. She said the decision to close the schools in this way isn’t in reaction to a student testing positive for COVID-19. It’s, instead, a proactive measure.
“We believe a two-week dismissal is the greatest preventative measure we can take right now,” Dickson said. “We’re not ending the school year by any means.”
When asked further about the specific plan, Cox said state officials believe social isolationism would also be damaging. In addition, he said the state has reached out to Native American tribes in Utah about outbreak measures.
Stopping the spread of COVID-19
President Donald Trump declared a national emergency regarding the COVID-19 pandemic earlier Friday. Herbert’s announcement was made after state officials earlier in the day said the number of cases in Utah had risen to six. That number, they said, is expected to continue to rise. So far, the state has not reported any deaths related to the novel coronavirus, and all six cases are travel-related.
Dr. Kurt Hegmann, director of the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Utah, said community spread has occurred in a dozen states, but not in Utah. That said, he believes it may either be present in the community or will be in the coming days. That’s why preemptive measures were taken to limit public gatherings, so the spread of the virus will be minimal.
If the virus does indeed strike on a wider scale, state health officials say they are optimistic about Utah’s situation right now and have a better understanding on what needs to be done to prevent large-scale outbreaks.
More specifically, they don’t want what happened to Italy, where more than 1,200 have died, or Washington State where 37 people have died, to happen in Utah. Those figures are according to the Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering as of Friday evening. Instead, Hegmann pointed to Japan’s reaction of issuing closures and recommending social distancing at an early stage as an example of what to do. Japan has reported just 701 confirmed cases and 19 deaths, as of Friday.
“This has happened now in a number of countries around the world now and the experiences are remarkably different depending what action is taken by the government and the policy-makers at what point in time in the epidemic,” he said, pointing to a graphic in the room that shows spikes in cases reported in some countries and flat curves in others.
“Clearly the answer is proactively addressing things. … We want to be on that flat curve,” he added.
This is the COVID-19 infographic displayed at the press conference that officials pointed to as they explained having preemptive measures now pic.twitter.com/SB7yo6T6yP— Carter Williams (@cwilliamsKSL) March 13, 2020
Herbert announced Thursday a statewide recommendation to limit public gatherings to 100 people. And now public schools will join the many universities across the state that said Thursday they would transition to online courses for the remainder of the spring semester to prevent the spread of the virus.
The Utah State Board of Education also banned all school-related out-of-state travel for the next two weeks and 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.
“We’re not quarantining every child in the state of Utah,” Cox said on Friday. “That’s not what we’re talking about right now. We still want you to go to walks in the park, we still want you to go do the things you need to do, we’re just avoiding these large, mass gatherings that will hopefully help stop the spread of coronavirus.”
Correction: In a previous version of this story, Gov. Gary Herbert was quoted saying students could be supervised by teachers during the soft closure. A statement issued Saturday by the governor's office corrected this error and information from the statement is included above.