SALT LAKE CITY — While teachers are happy to see students again after the long Thanksgiving weekend, there is "trepidation" about a possible surge in COVID-19 cases, according to officials with the Utah Education Association.
"We want to be in schools with our students with face-to-face learning but we want to be safe, too," said UEA President Heidi Matthews. "And what is happening right now is not working."
Matthews said the teachers union was trying to be proactive with its failed request that Governor Gary Herbert move secondary schools in high-transmission areas to online instruction until at least the start of January.
"Because when we're reactive with this virus people get sick and people die and that's what we're trying to avoid," she said.
After surveying member teachers, the UEA reports an even division between urban and rural teachers in Utah about whether schools should temporarily shift to online learning.
42% of teachers said that all school buildings statewide should close temporarily while another 42% said that those decisions should be made on a local level and that the UEA should not focus on statewide solutions.
One option on the survey asked 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 educations and schools?"
The UEA tells KSL that, overall, only 16% of teachers supported a job action. However, in some urban districts, nearly 30% of teachers said they would support a work stoppage. While just 8% of teachers in rural districts said they would support such an action.
Matthews said she is reading over more than 300 pages of comments from Utah teachers and that 88% responded that they are overwhelmed and stressed from the increased workload.
"I can't even tell you the level of despair," Matthews said. "The workload is just unsustainable."
While acknowledging the stress teachers are under this year, Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsley said virus transmission in the classroom is very low.
"Last June and July when we were planning for this school year and thought that we would have less than 2% or 3% transmission rate on school property we would have been so excited about those figures," Horsley said. "So to have that kind of data coming through on our contact tracing is phenomenal."
Horsley said it's important to keep in-person learning because families facing poverty do not have the resources to support at-home learning. Also, the district has found that students are socializing when school is not is session.
I can't even tell you the level of despair. The (teachers') workload is just unsustainable.
–UEA President Heidi Matthews
"It's very painfully obvious that kids, when they are on these dismissals, that not only does the learning diminish but also their safety," Horsley said.
There is hope that new, statewide testing requirements for secondary students will help keep track of how the virus is spreading among students.
"With increased testing, we can keep sick kids home and we can keep kids who are negative in an effective learning environment," Horsley said.
Starting Monday, any student or staff involved in extracurricular activities outside of the regular school day will be tested once every two weeks.
"What we learned from the high school football testing is that the types of things that we've been preaching for people to do — to wear their masks, to maintain physical distancing — work," said Tom Hudachko, director of communications for the health department. "And so we hope that we will start to see that as we branch out into other extracurriculars over the next couple weeks."