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Governor announces ‘soft closure’ of Utah public schools

FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2018, file photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Gov. Gary Herbert announced a “soft closure” of all Utah public schools effective Monday for a period of two weeks in an effort to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in the state. This comes just hours after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency and two new coronavirus cases were confirmed in Summit County.

“We’ve been doing everything we can to get ahead of the virus,” said Gov. Herbert during a press briefing with the Utah State Board of Education Friday. “It’s better to be too early than to be too late.”

What does “soft closure” mean?

The governor announced it would be a “soft closure” meaning the Utah public schools will still provide meals to students during this time and a place to go for parents who work.

The State Board of Education says food will be provided in a “grab and go” system, one-on-one tutoring can still be offered and other services will be still available.

While school will be dismissed for the next two weeks, students should not prepare to be finished for the rest of the school year, the board said. They said even though in-person classes are cancelled, school assignments are still expected to be completed through “distance learning.”

Any specific materials, like books or technology, can be given out and taken home by students depending on what is available for each school.

“We are not cancelling the school year by any means,” said Sydnee Dickson, the superintendent of public instruction. “Learning is still taking place and we are still expecting students are online. […] School is still taking place in a variety of forms.”

For students who don’t have access to internet, there are some actions taking place within different schools on how to go through with this. Dickson said schools are preparing to assist families who don’t have access to these resources.

Gov. Gary Herbert said students still need to take responsibility during this time. Dismissed classes doesn’t mean students should take advantage of the time to hang out with large groups of friends.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox made the distinction that social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation. He said students can still take decisions to reach out to friends while still practicing social distancing.

Herbert said when the two-week closure period for Utah public schools is over, they will reassess conditions.

Gov. Herbert said these measures are being taken to avoid the spread of the virus across the state. At this time, social distancing is one of the most important measures for Utahns to take.

Cox said this is a preventative measure — not a reaction to disaster.

“We’re not doing this because things are bad right now,” he said. “We’re doing this so things don’t get bad in the future.”

He said it’s not about fighting over survival, but an opportunity to look out for neighbors and other Utahns during this time.

“This doesn’t mean you have to go pillage the stores,” he said. “This doesn’t mean you have to fight over toilet paper.”

How Utah is already reacting

The news comes one day after the governor made public recommendations to the state to cancel events holding 100+ people in attendance. At the time, this included church services but didn’t apply to K-12 public schools.

Utah universities and colleges made the move to cancel classes and move online, with several events and sporting activities being postponed or canceled throughout the state.

As of Thursday, Murray School District was the only district to announce a closure. This happened after school officials say they learned about potential direct contact exposure to the novel coronavirus.

They announced cancelling classes out of “an abundance of caution.” However, the district confirmed there were no signs or symptoms associated with the the virus.

Other districts held off on canceling classes at first, noting school shouldn’t be closed out of anxiety or fear.

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 of local health departments.

Health officials recommended staggering lunches and recess breaks, so there aren’t as many kids in one location at any given time.  They also recommend activities like assemblies be canceled for the next two weeks, as well as any out-of-state traveling.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said in a weekly briefing with the Utah Health Department Friday they still haven’t seen any evidence of the virus spreading from one person to another within the borders of Utah. Many cases are brought from out-of-state visitors.