SALT LAKE CITY — With an eye on safely restarting K-12 schools this fall, the Utah State Board of Education agreed Thursday to set aside more than $2 million of federal CARES funding to purchase equipment and supplies such as thermometers, hand sanitizer and child-sized disposable masks.
The board also directed State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson and board staff to work with state and local health authorities to define minimum statewide health and safety requirements for schools. The board also directed Dickson and staff to create guidelines for schools on each of Utah Leads Together’s color-coded guidelines.
A recent review of medical supplies in Utah public schools revealed some schools don’t have thermometers. At least one school was relying on a mercury-filled thermometer, Dickson said.
The plan is to purchase 600 digital, no-touch thermometers to distribute to schools that do not have thermometers along with 50,000 disposable masks. The board agreed to set aside $75,000 of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, funding to buy the needed items.
The board also approved setting aside up to $2 million in CARES Act funding to purchase sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer, face shields and medical gowns to help schools stock their medical bags and sick rooms.
While the board quickly agreed to set aside funding for supplies and equipment, it had a robust discussion about the role of the State School Board in setting down minimum health requirements and guidelines related to the governor’s Utah Leads Together plan.
The board was divided between those who said the board should not be in the business of establishing requirements because local district and charter boards know their capacities best and can work with local health authorities.
“I think we should be information givers and information sharers, but I don’t think we should be requirers of anything,” said board member Mark Marsh.
But others argued that in a time of a global pandemic that the State School Board has the constitutional authority and responsibilities to develop requirements for schools.
Masks? Split sessions?
While executive orders and health authorities can determine levels of risk, it remains unclear to schools what a school should look like during each color-coded phase, said board member Carol Lear. For instance, what level of sanitation or hygiene is called for in each color phase or how would social distancing be handled.
“If we change this to guidance, I think we should throw out the whole thing out because we put out guidance in 15 different formats the last four weeks. I think that is no longer helpful,” she said.
Board member Scott Hansen said superintendents, school directors and boards of education want specific minimum requirements to guide their work as they go about reopening schools.
“It’s been clear over the past two weeks that LEAs (local education agencies) are looking for minimum requirements so that they can do their planning, so that they can look at budget impacts, so they can anticipate all the tasks that are ahead of them. We need clarity rather than ambiguity,” he said.
Others argued that more state board requirements would mean that districts that can’t meet minimum requirements would have to seek waivers or the state board would be thrust into another oversight role, which would be an additional bureaucratic burden.
But board member Jennifer Graviet, who is a junior high teacher, said as an educator who would be subject to the requirements, she would not see them as “oppressive.”
“These are minimum requirements. From there, I can make decisions. To me that’s so useful,” she said.
Board Vice Chairwoman Brittney Cummins said there is a distinction between requirements — which during the COVID-19 pandemic were the governor’s executive orders or orders of state and local health departments — and guidance. “I think, that is more clear to what our role is,” she said.
In the end, the board compromised by directing Dickson and board staff to create guidelines for schools on each of Utah Leads Together’s phased guidelines and to collaborate with state and local health authorities to define minimum statewide health and safety requirements for Utah’s public schools.