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Utah Education Association calls to move many secondary schools online
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Despite warnings, most K-12 schools will stay open

Online learning has been a challenge for many students, (West High School, Salt Lake City. Credit: Paul Nelson)

SALT LAKE COUNTY – If universities across the state are moving to online classes to prevent the spread of coronavirus, why are K-12 schools staying open, for the most part?  Educators say there is a massive ripple effect that comes from shutting a school down, and it’s not a decision that should be taken lightly.

As of Thursday afternoon, the only school district that decided to close was the Murray School District.  This happened after school officials say they learned about potential direct contact exposure to coronavirus and they’re closing classes out of “an abundance of caution.”  The district’s statement says, “students and teachers surrounding this potential direct contact have not exhibited signs or symptoms associated with COVID-19.”

However, this decision is not affecting other districts.

“We’re not going to simply close schools because another school district chose to do so,” says Granite School District Spokesman Ben Horsley.

Officials with the Utah State Board of Education say they don’t have the authority to mandate school closures.  That decision has to be made by districts with the input local health departments.  Even though Murray and Granite both work with the Salt Lake County Health Department, there were no instructions to close classes.

Horsley says, “The guidance was that schools do not need to close unless there is an imminent threat.  And, they gave us additional guidelines to follow to enact a closure.”

The Salt Lake City School District will also keep classes open, but they have decided to suspend all spring activities for two weeks.  Individual schools will decide if they want to cancel athletic practices, or not.

The Tooele County School District is cancelling all events and athletic practices until March 27.

The Alpine School District is shortening classes on March 16 and 17 so they can train teachers on what they need to do if the district cancels school and switches to online classes.

Even though the USBE can’t force schools to close due to the virus, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson says there are things they can do to keep crowd sizes as small as possible.

“[During] recess, in lunchrooms, how can you minimize the size of the crowd in the school buildings?” she asks.

Dickson says they recommend staggering lunches and recess breaks, so there aren’t as many kids in one location at any given time.  Also, the board is recommending things like assemblies be cancelled for the next two weeks, as well as any out-of-state traveling.  Plus, they’re asking for help from the federal government to help ensure students are fed safely.

Dickson says, “We’ve petitioned the federal government to loosen up some of the federal food guidelines so we can offer grab-and-go lunches.”

However, she says closing a school is a drastic solution and it has a significant ripple effect that can hurt families.  Many families rely on schools to feed their children and many others don’t have any other form of daycare.

“We have a lot of working families with nobody to care for their children out of school during the day,” she says.

State epidemiologists say they still haven’t seen any evidence of the virus spreading from one person to another within the borders of Utah.