ST. GEORGE — Not even 24 hours after the Washington County School Board of Education unanimously approved their reopening plan Monday evening, the Utah Education Association called for a delay in reopening schools due to the rise in COVID-19 infections across the state.
Over the last week, the board has been receiving public comments about their reopening plan, some of which were discussed ahead of the public hearing Monday evening. David Stirland, president of the board, said they received 426 comments total, which represents about 2.2% of households within the district.
Board member Craig Seegmiller said the comments voiced opinions on both ends of the extreme, from parents not wanting their children in masks to parents who don’t think schools should open at all.
“We have no chance of making everybody happy,” he said. “The extremes are so wide.”
He also made a point to clarify some confusion about the mask mandate, addressing those who think the governor’s mask mandate is not the law.
“It is the law; and unfortunately, the law doesn’t have a lot of flexibility,” he said.
The approved plan adheres to the state mandates, which require students to wear masks inside school buildings and on school buses.
Superintendent Larry Bergeson said elementary teachers plan to take students outside for periodic mask breaks. He also said, in response to some parents’ worry about the excessive use of hand sanitizer, that students will be allowed to wash their hands instead of using hand sanitizer when applicable.
Stirland assured parents that as soon as they can relax the mandate, they are going to get kids out of masks.
“But, in the meantime, we’re going to follow the mandate, and we’re going to do the best we can.”
Bergeson said depending on the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a chance that schools could be soft closed and return to 100% online instruction.
“Our return-to-learn plan is fluid and will change as needed. And as a school and community, we can help by following directions from the health department,” he said. “If those adjustments allow us to be more lenient, green level for example, then we’ll adjust accordingly that way.”
Overall, the goal is to make in-person schooling as normal as possible.
Another question Bergeson addressed during the meeting had to do with whether the hand sanitizer and chemicals they are using to clean the classrooms are safe.
“Only industry approved cleaning solutions that are effective and safe will be used for facility sanitation and touchpoint cleaning,” he said. “Use of cleaning chemicals in all facilities is in accordance with OSHA guidelines and other government regulations.”
Hand sanitizer and cleaning solutions will be provided by the district or the school. It will not be the responsibility of the teachers, he said.
Brent Bills, district business administrator, said they have already sent out 3,600 gallons of gel hand sanitizer to secondary schools and 3,500 gallons of liquid hand sanitizer to elementary schools as well as gel pumps and spray bottles.
Bergeson said some of the cleaning solutions they’ll be using are chemicals they have been using for years.
During the public hearing, several mothers stood up and spoke against the mask mandate and the logistics pertaining to the masks, such as how they will remain sanitary throughout the day and how they may hinder learning.
Jenny Black, a mother of two and a member of the PTA, said she is concerned with the mental health impacts children may succumb to as a result of having to wear masks or being isolated in the case that a teacher tests positive for the coronavirus.
Black said she and her daughter wore masks to church and her daughter complained the whole time that she couldn’t breathe.
“It makes me uncomfortable as a parent that we would not acknowledge a child’s own fears,” she said. “The mental stigmas we are placing on our children is greater than anything I have heard today.”
Kris Sewell, who’s been a teacher in the district for 23 years, said she would like nothing more than to go back to school full time with no restrictions.
“However, I have to say that there are teachers at my school who are in chemotherapy fighting cancer. There are several that are pregnant. There are several that are taking care of their elderly parents. There are many that have children who are comprised. And I want what’s best for kids. That’s our motto. That’s what we want to do. But I feel like someone has to say something about the teachers. If the teachers aren’t there, school doesn’t happen,” she said.
Sewell went on to say that teachers are like “MacGyver” and that they can solve anything, and they will, and they’ll do it together.
Board member Terry Hutchinson, who said just before the board voted that he wasn’t sure how he was going to vote, told St. George News that his decision came down to a bottom line: Kids need to be back in school.
His main frustration is with Gov. Gary Herbert’s mask mandate.
“The governor never should have taken that decision away from the schools,” he said. “I just don’t think there’s enough science to justify what they’re asking for. However, I have to balance that against the need of the students overall. And even with masks, I believe in-person instruction is better than nothing.”
Following the district’s approval of the plan, on Tuesday afternoon, the Utah Education Association called for a delay in reopening schools, stating that a rush to reopen schools amid increases in COVID-19 infections puts students and teachers at risk.
In a press release issued by the UEA, Heidi Matthews, president of the UEA, said that while they know in-person teaching and learning is best for both students and educators, rushing back into school too soon is not the answer.
“The reality is that, with few exceptions, we are nowhere near containing the spread of this virus. 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.”
Steven Dunham, district communications director, told St. George News the board will be moving forward with their plan but will be ready to pivot per the governor’s order.
“If the governor calls for a mandate to delay the opening of schools, we’ll support that. But right now, we’re going to continue following the current mandate,” he said, “because there is such a significant benefit to the students to be in school.”
Matthews called on the governor to lead with science and safety and declare that schools in impacted areas to open remotely this fall until COVID-19 cases decline, “and they have robust reopening plans created with input from educators and carefully reviewed and approved by local health authorities.”
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