SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – In the wake of heightened concerns over the spread of COVID-19 or coronavirus, state education officials announced a list of recommendations to minimize its spread as several universities made the decision to move classes online.
In a press conference Thursday afternoon, Governor Gary Herbert and Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox advised that beginning March 16th, mass gatherings should be limited to no more than 100 healthy individuals. This includes concerts, churches, and public events. Those who are over the age of 60 or immuno-compromised should avoid gatherings of more than 20 people.
State officials applauded Utahns for taking emergency preparedness seriously, but then reminded residents to be rational and reasonable, referring to incidents of shoppers stockpiling or fighting over water bottles, toilet paper, or antibacterial products.
University of Utah President Ruth Watkins and Utah State University President Noelle Cockett announced they would be moving all classes online starting Monday for the rest of the semester. Brigham Young University later made a similar announcement online. This came after the cancelation of multiple athletic conferences, switch of LDS General Conference to virtual attendance, and several local municipalities declaring a state of emergency.
“Unprecedented times require unprecedented actions. […] Particularly social distancing and reducing travel. We have canceled university events, both sponsored by the university and held at the university campuses and centers and only allow those events to occur on a case-by-case basis. We have also canceled all non-essential university travel,” said Cockett.
David Woolstenhulme, Interim Commissioner for Higher Education said all eight state universities will be moving classes online for this semester.
“That’s not an easy thing to do to be able to take a lab and trying to figure out how the students can have the same type of experience and to be able to obtain the knowledge they need to continue in their education,” he said.
As for K-12 schools, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said they would not be announcing a statewide cancelation of schools, leaving the difficult decision up to individual school districts and their health department. Murray School District made the decision to close Thursday after possible direct exposure to COVID-19, out of “an abundance of caution.”
“Not having K-12 children in school puts weight on families whose parents work during the day or for those in which childcare is not an option. It’s a different type of social and economic impact that we’re not taking lightly,” said Dickson. “Schools should not attempt to close without working with a local health department and deeming it necessary.”
Education leaders said outside travel for school-related activities, athletic activities, and assemblies should be canceled. Lunch and recess times should be staggered so that students are not all gathered in a close area at the same time.
Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health said that the five Utah COVID-19 cases reported so far are all travel-related. All five patients, including two Jazz players, are doing well and expected to recover, leading officials to confidently assert that the virus is not community-spread in Utah.
State leaders and education officials ensured the public to remain calm and not panic in light of these recommendations, emphasizing these measures are proactive, not reactive.
“We want to be not sitting on the sidelines. It’s better to be too early than it is to be too late so we’re taking a very proactive position here to see if we can get ahead of this issue so we can minimize the spread here in the State of Utah,” said Gov. Herbert.
State leaders said they will reevaluate conditions in two weeks and provide more updates then. As for graduation ceremonies, officials have not made a decision on whether they will continue or cancel the events planned during the upcoming spring.
For an updated list of what procedures or protocols school districts throughout the State of Utah are implementing to minimize the impact of COVID-19, click here.