SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker who is also a school teacher warned that many of her colleagues may take "job actions" if adequate safety measures are not taken for school re-openings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, told FOX 13 in an interview on Wednesday that many teachers feel uncomfortable working without adequate health protections in place and additional work required of them now. She said teachers and staff need protections in place and testing for COVID-19.
"There has been talk of job actions, contract time, just working your contract time and the teachers are frustrated," she said. "The teachers going to be doing in-class instruction, online instruction and going back and forth between those platforms every day and every week, it's exhausting."
Sen. Riebe is a member of the Utah State Legislature's Interim Education Committee, which held a hearing on back-to-school plans that included testimony from the superintendent of public instruction, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn and the leader of the Utah Education Association.
"It's an unprecedented time. I don’t know how else to frame this," said Dr. Sydnee Dickson, the state's public schools superintendent.
She briefed lawmakers on each district's plans, which includes some going online, in-person instruction or a combination of the two.
Lawmakers had the most questions for Dr. Dunn, who testified about the guidance the Utah Department of Health has given to local school districts. Dr. Dunn urged school administrations to enforce physical distancing and face coverings in schools to avoid spread. Parents, she said, should monitor symptoms in children and they should stay home if sick, even with a runny nose.
The state has mandated face coverings in all schools (and it is even a misdemeanor crime if they do not wear one). Dr. Dunn said if two students in the same class contract COVID-19, it will be considered an outbreak. That classroom will have to go virtual for two weeks, under the protocol in place. If 15 students or 10% of the student body (whichever comes first) get it? The entire school building will close for two weeks and instruction goes online-only.
Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, shared concerns that many of his constituents had about the actual risk to students. While acknowledging the risk to teachers, he said many are questioning if it's that big of an issue given that many children are asymptomatic.
"Are we being too restrictive especially with this young population that has very, very low risk?" he asked Dr. Dunn.
She acknowledged there isn't a lot known about COVID and its impact on children, but she said they can contract it and spread it to others.
"Schools are a great way to start community spread. So we need to prevent spread within school because what happens in a school can and will spread out to a community," Dr. Dunn said.
The state has purchased personal protective equipment for teachers and students as they begin the school year. Some teachers have complained to FOX 13 that it has yet to arrive. Dr. Dickson told the committee it was being delivered.
The UEA, which is the state's largest teachers union, had a list of demands for the state. They included not opening until COVID-19 is under control in local areas; adequate protections in place; employee rights recognized; additional sick leave and medical costs covered; plans to ensure continuous learning and clear policies on health measures being enforced.
UEA President Heidi Matthews made no mention of any strikes or job actions, but pleaded with lawmakers to ensure safe measures are in place for teachers.
"We want to work together collaboratively and we need the support of our state, you, and all of our local authorities in holding up that umbrella against this downpour so we can re-enter our schools safely, so we can get back to where we want to be with our students and we do it in a way that we can all stay dry," she said.
Sen. Riebe quizzed Dr. Lexi Cunningham with the Utah State Superintendents Association about what happens when teachers start getting sick.
"I haven’t really heard a conversation that’s going to talk about once we’re opening and what’s happening with substitutes," she said.
Dr. Cunningham said they were trying to address that.
"We are out looking for subs, looking to train subs," she said.
Sen. Riebe told FOX 13 afterward she does believe the state's back-to-school plans have good measures for a safe re-opening.
"My concern is that some of these things that we’ve spoken about actually aren't in place," she said.
House Education Committee Chair Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said the legislature may consider additional bills and funding to help ensure safer re-openings.
"We can turn around fairly quickly on some of these issues. I can’t predict what the outcome of this will be in terms of legislation. But it’s certainly on the table," he told FOX 13.