MURRAY — Officials with the Utah Education Association said they're concerned about a possible spike in COVID-19 cases once teachers and students return to the classroom after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
"Whenever there has been some type of a holiday, we tend to see a spike in cases and a surge," said Renee Pinkney, UEA vice president.
Pinkney said the UEA is standing by its request that Governor Gary Herbert should move secondary schools in high-transmission areas to online instruction until at least the start of January.
"It's still concerning to us that we still have secondary schools that are open in these high transmission areas," Pinkney said. "Especially after the Thanksgiving holiday, the concern is that the transmission will increase."
After that request was not included in the governor's recent directives, the union sent out a survey to members asking about working conditions and how the organization can best support teachers.
One option asks if the UEA should "organize a statewide job action (such as a 'sick out' or other action that would halt work for a day or more) to urge immediate attention by state leaders to the concerns of educators and schools?"
Another question asked if the UEA should focus on local districts instead of statewide initiatives or whether it should "urge educators with personal concerns to continue in-school teaching because it's best for students."
"I think the best move for our students, for our community, for our teachers right now is to go online through the holidays and for a safe period after," said Brooke Walrath, who teaches in the Granite School District.
Walrath said she is worried about students traveling, gathering and shopping over the long Thanksgiving weekend.
"It's really clear that we're in a very bad position right now in terms of number of cases and in terms of hospital capacities and it's only going to get worse," Walrath said. "I'm really concerned for the students at my school. I'm really concerned for the other teachers at my school."
The survey ended Monday and Pinkney said UEA staff is now going over the results and reading about 5,000 comments from teachers. She said there seems to be a rural/urban split about how teachers want to move forward.
"What we know right now is that our members are pretty evenly divided on how best to address the pandemic in our schools and especially in those high-transmission areas," Pinkney said.
In announcing the survey, UEA President Heidi Matthews acknowledged that teachers' feelings are very diverse.
"Typically, the task of defending educators is relatively straight forward," Matthews wrote in a Nov. 13 article on the UEA's website. "But in the current environment, I've watched as your elected UEA leaders agonize over how best to advocate for you."
It's really clear that we're in a very bad position right now in terms of number of cases and in terms of hospital capacities and it's only going to get worse. I'm really concerned for the students at my school. I'm really concerned for the other teachers at my school.
–Brooke Walrath, Granite School District
After its failed plea to the governor, the UEA shared some feedback it received from teachers.
"Thank you for your message to the governor of Utah! Please continue to push for high schools to go online," the UEA said one teacher from the Jordan School District wrote.
While a teacher in San Juan wrote: "I do not want to revert back to online education from Thanksgiving to New Years. We need to keep students in schools. Until there is evidence to indicate widespread COVID in schools there is no reason to take students out."
And a teacher from the Alpine School District said: "We are ready to strike or do a sick out. This is untenable — my anxiety is through the roof."
The UEA expects to share some of the results from the teacher survey after the Thanksgiving break.
"So that we have a better read on where everybody is in our different local schools," Pinkney said. "So that we can then advocate in a more precise way."