Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL, File

As school districts plan to reopen, are teachers' health, safety concerns adequately addressed?

By Sean Walker, | Posted - Jul. 21, 2020 at 4:12 p.m.

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DRAPER — It’s not that teachers don’t want to return to work.

But after countless conversations with administrators and school board members, the president of the Canyons Education Association says she feels like many teachers' concerns aren’t being heard — or at worst, are being ignored — as districts make plans to reopen Utah schools in the fall.

“We obviously care about our students, and want to be in the classroom with them,” said Erika Bradshaw, who teaches math at Hillcrest High School. “But we are really concerned about our safety and the safety of our loved ones.”

Schools have been closed since March as part of Gov. Gary Herbert’s soft closure of all K-12 public schools in response to the coronavirus pandemic. More than four months later, meetings became focused on bringing students, teachers and staff back to school in time for the 2020-21 academic year.

Bradshaw said she asked the school board of the Canyons School District to address many of her fellow teachers’ concerns during the July 14 board meeting that set in motion the district’s plans for a return to school. Among those concerns was the possibility of an online start, with the ability to convert into a blended model and eventually full, in-person classes as the state better handles its current spike in coronavirus cases.

The implementation of guidelines could be determined by public health recommendations, gauged by data showing a drop in or better management of new cases, Bradshaw said — not by politicians with little experience in public health.

But when the district announced a full return to classes, she said it didn’t go far enough to address those concerns — especially for a teacher population that contains several high-risk individuals.

“There are so many things that we don’t know, and so many conflicting reports,” Bradshaw said. “I understand that people need to work and they need a place for kids to go to school, but I don’t think they really want to sacrifice their child’s health or the health of other individuals in the school system.”

A poll conducted by Canyons School District revealed that 98% of the nearly 1,400 respondents said they intend to return to in-person teaching in the fall, district spokesperson Jeff Heney told KSL.

“But then again, we had a significant number of teachers indicate that they would be interested in applying for the online teaching assignments,” Haney added.

The highest-risk teachers would be placed into the online learning model, paired with students who don’t feel comfortable returning to school, district officials said. But teachers feared that the number of digital sections will be determined by the number of students enrolled in online learning, which may force some high-risk teachers back into the classroom prematurely, Bradshaw said. She cited statistics that as many as 84% of Utah parents were in favor of returning to in-person class when most of the state was still in the yellow, “low-risk” phase of COVID-19 response.

“Those numbers obviously don’t equate,” she added.

Bradshaw said in a separate poll conducted by the education association, around 60% of the 700-800 respondents revealed they felt uncomfortable with returning to a five-day in-class schedule. Furthermore, respondents revealed to the district union president that they felt the district’s survey was flawed, with confusing questions and answers that didn’t always match how they best felt.

Essentially, 98% of teachers said they preferred to keep their jobs, Bradshaw said.

Adding to the confusion is that every school district along the Wasatch Front seems to have different plans for returning to school. Some prefer an all-in model, with increased sanitization and social distancing in place. Others will limit the number of days students are in class to allow for more thorough cleaning and symptom check times; or even eliminate the final hour of the day, as announced by Alpine School District, the state’s largest district, last week.

Glenna Lotulelei, a teacher in the Salt Lake City School District, said there should only be two options: parents can opt to send their children back to class full-time, or they can choose a strictly online learning method.

“We have teachers that are willing to go back to the classroom,” Lotutulei told KSL NewsRadio. “We have teachers that prefer to stay online.

“Why can’t we just do that across the state of Utah if we have teachers that are willing to go into the classroom?” she added.

Balancing the different models — as well as health and safety concerns of parents, students, teachers, staff and faculty — is a difficult job; and Bradshaw, the Canyons’ teacher union president, is quick to say new superintendent Rick Robins and the school board have done an admirable job of balancing their concerns.

But there is still work to be done on current plans.

“We’re expressing our concerns; our board is trying to do the best we can,” Bradshaw said.

“I just think we’re in a really difficult situation right now. Nothing’s going to please everybody, but I feel like the current plan has no way to return safely with cases like they are in Utah.”

Contributing: Jon Wojcik, KSL NewsRadio

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