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State Recommends Utah Universities Move Classes Online, Limit Large Gatherings

Three photos cropped together to show the Southern Utah University, University of Utah and Utah Valley University campuses
KUER file
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Following recommendations by the governor Thursday, most Utah universities are moving classes online for the rest of the school year.

On Thursday, state officials made recommendations for all public universities to suspend large gatherings, restrict non-essential travel and move classes online to help limit the spread of coronavirus.

The recommendations aren’t mandates, but all eight of Utah’s public universities are going along with them, with most suspending in-person classes starting next week. Students are not considered vulnerable to the virus but could spread it to others who are. 

“Unprecedented times require unprecedented actions,” said Utah State University President Noelle Cockett. “We are working towards implementing actions rather than wishing later we had been implementing more precautions.”

Private schools Brigham Young University and Westminster College announced they were canceling classes this week and next week before moving them online.

At a press conference Thursday afternoon, state officials stressed the situation surrounding coronavirus in Utah is not dire. The recommendations are intended as preemptive measures to limit the spread of the disease and not overwhelm hospitals. 

As of Thursday morning, 136 Utah patients had been tested for the virus, with another 24 awaiting results, according to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. Hundreds more have also been tested through private labs, such as ARUP Laboratories on the University of Utah campus. 

The recommendations do not apply to the state’s 41 public K-12 school districts, though one has closed so far — the Murray School District. Most others have been preparing for weeks for how they would handle potential closures, said Sydnee Dickson, superintendent of public instruction at the State Board of Education. 

The ultimate decision of whether to close will be left up to local health departments, she said.

Jennifer Farrell, a math teacher at Summit High School, said most teachers at her school don’t anticipate a closure. But if it did happen she would select online courses from Khan Academy and use Google Classrooms to talk with her students and assign lessons. She said it’s a good alternative, but the students’ education would likely suffer. 

“I won't be able to help my students too much,” Farrell said. “I see myself more as a coach. [The students] are doing problems, I'm walking around coaching them on how to do it, and I can't do that part of it.”

Dickson said most students in Utah have access to the technology they need and teachers have always been good about preparing lessons in case students need to miss school. She said for students without computers or internet access, districts would work to provide laptops and mobile hotspots or give them access to public libraries. 

“The education part of it, I'm confident in,” Dickson said. “It's the childcare and the things for our most vulnerable students that I still worry about that we need to get on top of.”

Dickson said families should start considering how they would take care of their kids at home. And for students who don't know where their next meal is coming from, she said the education board is working with the federal government on waivers that would allow them to deliver more mobile meals.

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