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Educators: Governor's COVID Order Puts Utah Teachers at Risk

A man looking at a computer screen with the faces of many people, as if they are all on a video call.
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Utah leaders have declared a public health emergency in the wake of rising COVID-19 rates, but the state's public school teachers say they've been left out of the plan.

With a spike in infections and a high rate of transmission, Gov. Gary Herbert issued a mandatory mask order this week, along with new restrictions for social gatherings. However, the Utah Education Association pointed out that the order leaves in-class instruction in place in the public schools. UEA President Heidi Matthews said that ignores the dangers of community spread for Utah teachers.

"We are placing them at a higher risk," she said. "We aren't giving them enough time to adequately do what they know that their students need, and they're being treated as secondary to the rest of the state in terms of distancing requirements."

Matthews said UEA is calling for the state to order all public secondary schools to adopt at-home instruction until the crisis abates. State health officials did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

In Matthews' view, limiting only extracurricular activities doesn't go far enough. She said health officials and school boards are, at best, underestimating the risk to teachers.

"The evidence that we have," she said, "the research shows that licensed teachers in Utah have a higher infection rate than the average citizen, which is one of the pieces of information that really pushed us to take a strong stand."

Matthews went so far as to say the effects of the pandemic could jeopardize the future of Utah's education system.

"I fear that we have a wave of people who are leaving the profession, and we had a teacher shortage here in Utah before the pandemic," she said. "We need to think of our public education in the future, and we need it to be sustainable."

She said UEA is asking health officials to address educators' concerns about social distancing, testing, proper quarantine measures and workload, and engage with teachers to develop a workable plan to protect students, educators and communities.