Gov. Gary Herbert put forward Thursday a new goal in the state’s fight against the coronavirus -- new cases down below 400 on average by Sept. 1.
The previous goal -- under 500 daily coronavirus new cases by Aug. 1 -- was met last week.
But Herbert and his top education staffers made it clear also in his weekly virtual press conference that he is not responsible for how public K-12 schools will be opened, or kept open, this month.
Nope, not him.
That is up to the elected school boards in the 41 individual school districts and their local health departments.
But while he is not responsible, Herbert’s folks said that a “guideline” suggested just last week -- that a school child or teacher or staffer could be exposed to coronavirus and STILL come to school -- is being “revoked,” even though it was just a suggestion. If a teacher/child is exposed to a person confirm infected, that teacher/child must stay home/quarantined for 14 days, the new guideline says.
If you are seeing some: “We are doing great, but just don’t blame me” stuff going on here, you are not alone.
UtahPolicy.com reported Thursday that in a private meeting among education stakeholders, including the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, earlier this week that Herbert was short with UEA leaders over rumors (or perhaps more than rumors) that there could be some teachers calling in sick -- a job action -- as schools open this month.
The UEA had issued a public statement that teachers shouldn’t be forced to go back to in-class instruction if they didn’t feel safe in doing so.
Herbert denied that he was short with teachers in the meeting. He said he was not angry at the UEA, in fact “was glad they were at the table.”
He said he did ask UEA president Heidi Matthews to come back to state/legislative leaders with some specific concerns.
And Herbert said the UEA has come back with five specific areas of concern, and that state and local school districts/health departments will take those concerns into account.
Herbert said one concern by teachers and staff is adequate “personal protective equipment” (PPE) for school employees.
He added that state health officials will prepare “push packs” of KN95 masks and face shields for 28,000 teachers and 16,000 school staff members, which will be used as “back fills” for districts that find they don’t have enough PPEs for their own school employees.
This will ensure, the governor said, that each teacher or staff member won’t be without appropriate PPEs -- five masks or shields at the start of school, if in fact the district is having some in-person school room teaching.
Herbert also announced that Utah is joining with seven other states and the Rockefeller Foundation to acquire and start using “rapid testing” coronavirus kits, which will give the patient a test response within 30 minutes of the swab. Utah testing, on average, is 1.3 to 1.7 days to get a result back, it was reported Thursday.
In addition, Herbert said that from now on, if a county or city wants to impose its own mandatory mask-wearing order, then it will be “basically automatic” that the state, i.e. Herbert, won’t have to issue a separate, individual OK.
The local government officials will just tell the state Department of Health that they are issuing such an order, and the order will be legal and binding upon that notice.
“We are streamlining this,” said Herbert.
Taken in total -- the state revoking the recommendation that kids/teachers could still go to school even if they have been exposed to the virus, the extensive discussion that Herbert/state is not responsible for how schools are opened, but local districts are, and that the governor doesn’t have the authority to tell schools how to conduct their business, even in a pandemic -- and it is clear that Herbert wants to step away from some of the blame that is befalling state leaders over the coronavirus as schools prepare to open later this month.
Herbert and his education advisor, Tami Pyfer, said it appears that some of the “unity” that Utahns showed in the early days of the coronavirus last spring seems to be falling away.
In short, as schools are preparing to open, some teachers and parents are questioning -- and getting upset, even angry -- about what will happen to themselves and their children.
Now is not the time for disunity, said Herbert. The governor didn’t talk about the rumors that some teachers may be considering a job action, a strike, if their demands over a safe in-school opening are not met.
Utah hasn’t seen a general teacher job action in over 30 years. And one coming now, with the uncertainty, even fear, of the coronavirus and public education, could lead to over-reaction by any number of public and school leaders.
All of the 75-member House and half of the 29-member Senate are up for election in November. While Herbert is not seeking re-election, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is the GOP nominee to replace Herbert, and almost assuredly will win the seat unless something really crazy were to happen.
Herbert put Cox in charge of the state’s coronavirus response, but Cox has remained behind the scenes in recent months -- clearly not wanting to engage in what now could become a really hot political potato -- a teacher job action and/or schools opening just to close if there’s a broad coronavirus outbreak in the classrooms.