One day after the state’s largest teachers union called for a delay to the push for Utah students to return to the classroom this fall, education stakeholders were summoned to a meeting with Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leadership to discuss the situation. Sources with knowledge of that meeting say the ensuing talks were tense, but it was made clear that Utah schools would re-open for in-person learning this fall.
Approximately 20 people were present at the meeting, including Republican and Democratic leaders of the Utah Legislature, Utah State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson, Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews, and other education stakeholders.
The meeting lasted more than an hour.
Several sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, tell UtahPolicy.com that Gov. Gary Herbert was clearly unhappy about the UEA’s call to delay the return to in-person classes.
The state’s largest teachers union argued the danger to students, teachers and staff was too high. Instead, the UEA asked Gov. Herbert to have schools in areas with elevated risk from the virus to open remotely.
“The governor was very impatient with the UEA, but he did not act inappropriately,” said one source with knowledge of the meeting. “He listened to their concerns but made it very clear about how he felt, which was that schools would return to in-person classes in the fall.”
“He essentially said we’re going to re-open, and you (education stakeholders) need to reconcile that with your worries about the virus,” was how one source characterized Herbert’s comments.
“There wasn’t a lot of sympathy for the UEA’s position,” said another source involved in the meeting. “Some of the people pushing for in-person learning in the fall questioned why teachers would be entitled to different treatment than others who have to physically report to their place of employment.”
UEA President Heidi Matthews, who was present at the meeting, said that characterization of Gov. Herbert’s comments was not entirely accurate.
“What I sensed was frustration from the governor about what we were calling for, and frustration with the governor’s scope of powers,” she said.
Matthews said that frustration sprung from a misunderstanding in what the UEA was asking for, and what authority the governor has when it comes to schools.
Governor Herbert’s office confirmed the meeting took place and emphasized that Herbert does not have the power to force schools to open.
“The governor does not have the authority to dictate the start dates or type of instruction for districts as they begin a new school year,” said a spokesperson in an email to UtahPolicy.com. “Variation in reopening plans reflects the structure of Utah’s education system, which gives decision making power to local school districts and the State Board of Education.”
“In short, the governor leaves all decisions regarding delaying the start of school up to school districts,” they continued.
The state’s local school boards were required to submit their plans for reopening by the end of last week. Most districts are employing some mix of in-person and online classes. The Salt Lake City School District will use online learning for the time being.
Matthews and Gov. Herbert’s office tell UtahPolicy.com that they have continued to meet following the initial discussion to find ways to help the state’s schools open in a way that is safe for both students and teachers.
“We hope they come up with an approval process for some of these local plans for re-opening,” said Matthews. “We’d like to see the local health departments approve those plans. Some are good, some are not.”
Matthews says the ongoing discussions with the governor’s office have been productive, and she hopes that the state can take what she says are reasonable steps to make sure teachers are safe when they return to the classroom, including accommodations for teachers who are at high risk for the coronavirus.
“There is a growing sense that there is no backstop to these plans. Where is the approval process that this plan meets health standards and standards for sanitation and social distancing?”
“This is all new. Nobody has had to deal with this before. Teachers want to return to the classrooms, but they also want to feel safe in doing so,” she added.