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Utah Teachers Protest Over State’s COVID-19 Response

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Teachers along the Salt Lake Valley called on their coworkers across Utah to protest the governor’s and local school district leaders’ handling of the pandemic in the classrooms with a “sick out” day to get tested for COVID-19.

The teachers said now is the time to switch to online learning through Christmas — or until the spike in cases is under control.

“We’re concerned for our students and their families,” said teacher Lindsay Plummer.

Plummer comes from a family of educators. Her father, Marvin Miles, taught for 35 years in Idaho and New Mexico before retiring. He drove up from New Mexico to help Plummer’s children with their online schoolwork.

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take for my grandkids,” Miles said.

Plummer said she fears she may inadvertently get COVID-19 from a student at school and bring it home to her father.

“It might be safe for the students but is it safe for the teachers and their families?” Plummer asked.

That’s why Plummer helped organize Thursday’s Great Utah Test Out — for teachers to call in sick and get tested for COVID-19.

The event, organized by Teachers Take Charge, encouraged teachers to take a “sick day” as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act — which requires certain employers to provide employees with sick leave related to COVID-19 through Dec. 31.

Plummer said teachers from several districts along the Wasatch Front don’t feel state leaders or their districts are doing enough to protect teachers and students.

Plummer added the governor’s mask mandate, announced Sunday evening, was long overdue. She said she’s disappointed to see the governor cancel extracurricular activities but allow in-person learning to continue.

She wants to see stricter guidelines — not just canceling extracurricular activities, but also a transition online learning for the rest of the semester, saying it would streamline work for teachers and create consistency for students.

Also on the wish list: weekly COVID-19 testing for teachers and smaller class sizes.

“It’s not that we don’t want to do our jobs, it’s that we’re being asked to do way too much,” teacher Brooke Walrath said. “During the day, we’re the masking police at school while in my district we are teaching dual modalities, in-person and online. In my limited time I am supposed to deliver the same high-quality instruction and content to my kids. There are still kids I have not been able to make contact with online, and I don’t’ know anything about them.

“If we could just pick one modality, online, I could be the kind of teacher that I want to be with them and catch up.”

Walrath, who has been teaching for eight years, said that despite receiving an email from the Granite Education Association stating that a “sick out” could impact teachers’ employment status and land them in a disciplinary meeting with their principal, she felt the risk was worth it.

“At school we’re seeing huge groups of kids huddled together — no masks, eating, sharing water bottles, hugging having a good time, hugging each other, all of the things that they aren’t supposed to be doing right now,” Walrath said. “I don’t think health officials are taking that into account.”

“I care about my community and I see how badly COVID is affecting it,” she added. “The damage that it’s doing to our communities is undoable. You can’t take back death.”

Several school districts reported they had hundreds of teachers call in sick Thursday, but said those numbers are normal for this time of year.

For example, Granite School District officials estimated about two dozen of their teachers called out for the “sick out.”

Likewise, Alpine School District officials said their numbers vary widely, with an average of 250-320 teachers who take sick leave per day. They added recent absences have been as high as 400, as they were last Friday.

Teacher Absences/Sick Calls

  • Alpine School District: 406 (daily average — 250-320)
  • Granite School District: 200 (daily average — 175)
  • Jordan School District: 65 (daily average — 45)
  • Canyons School District: 175 (165 Wednesday)
  • Davis School District: 200 (208 Wednesday)

Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsley said the on-campus infection rate for Granite schools is less than two percent, and said the focus needs to be on social gatherings where we let our guard down.

“Such low amounts of transmission are happening on school property,” Horsley said. “Frankly, these teachers are much more safe on school property than at home just as our students are. The vast majority of those [teachers and employees] are getting this awful dreaded disease at home or social circumstances, so if we could follow the rules the governor has laid out, I think we will all be a lot safer.”

Horsley said his district also has lesson plans and resources in place for teachers to use with online learning students and a survey showed only about 30 percent of teachers have used those resources.

However, Walrath, a junior high Spanish teacher in the Granite School District, said the resources set up by the district are hard to navigate and ultimately require as much time as creating a personalized lesson plan for students.

“Very little of it is useable and I’m not sure why just throwing out that they have given us some resources excuses that we are still be asked to double the work and sift through that information,” she said. “Honestly, I would rather do my work at the end of the day.”

Horsley said their district is also working on getting more testing available to teachers.

It is hard to determine how many teachers participated in Thursday’s “sick out,” but Plummer said she heard from hundreds of teachers.

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