Utah educators rally for more virus protections in schools

Kris Reddout, a 5th grade teacher, attends a Utah Safe Schools Mask-In urging the governor's leadership in school reopening during a rally Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Parents and teachers rallied at the Utah State Capitol Thursday morning to urge schools to enforce mask wearing and to implement other safety policies recommended by health officials as the state prepares to reopen classrooms this fall. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s largest teachers union called Tuesday for schools to delay reopening buildings for in-person learning and instead start only with online classes, citing safety concerns for students and teachers.

The Utah Education Association called for state leaders to temporarily resume distance learning until COVID-19 cases further decline. The union said school districts should seek input from educators and local health authorities before moving forward with any reopening plans.

“Current school district plans, no matter how robust, simply cannot sufficiently ensure the health and safety of our students, educators and families in communities where the virus continues to spread unchecked," union President Heidi Matthews said.

The union urged state officials to make decisions related to school reopening on “scientific evidence and advice” and to ensure that students and educators have access to proper personal protective equipment.

Some of the nation’s largest public school districts are starting the school year online in cities such as Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston. For weeks, President Donald Trump has pressed for a full reopening of the nation’s schools and threatened to withhold future virus relief funds from schools that fail to reopen.

Earlier this month, Gov. Gary Herbert announced Utah will require masks in schools, but face coverings remain contentious in the Republican-led state. A public meeting in Utah County was abruptly ended when dozens of people pushing for an exemption to the mask requirement in schools packed the room.

More than 38,000 cases of the virus have been reported in Utah, and over 280 people have died, according to state data. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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Sophia Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.

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