Utah teachers say they haven’t received much sanitizer or PPE — including masks

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Granite School District communications director Ben Horsley overlooks PPE inventory being prepared to ship to schools for the start of classes next week from the Granite School District Warehouse on Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

Some Utah teachers say that all they’ve been given to disinfect their classrooms is one rag and a bottle of homemade sanitizing spray. Others say they haven’t even gotten a bottle yet.

Staff at a school district in northern Utah have resorted to making their own barriers out of cardboard boxes and laminator paper. Some are also using PVC pipe and clear shower curtains. Their pleas for Plexiglas were denied, they say.

One educator posted on social media a picture of the bag of protective equipment given out by a school district in the state. It was filled with cough drops and cotton balls. She’s not sure how those will help during the coronavirus pandemic. Another said she hasn’t received any masks — including the ones promised by the governor.

The concerns about a lack of PPE in schools come from across Utah and as many classrooms are slated to reopen for in-person instruction this week or next. And the state acknowledges that some supplies won’t arrive by then.

“I don’t have anything so far,” noted JoAnne Brown, who teaches at Olympus Junior High in Salt Lake County. “And I’m high risk in like five ways,” she added, noting she is a two-time cancer survivor and has asthma.

“I don’t even have sanitizing spray,” she said. “I just went out and bought my own soap, too. That cost probably $40, and I’m sure I’ll be spending more.”

Kathleen Riebe, a Democratic senator from Cottonwood Heights and a teacher, echoed that Monday during a legislative meeting, saying: “We’re very nervous about what we’re going to be receiving. I am in a school right now, and I have not seen any of this equipment.”

School districts and the Utah Board of Education say they’ve been trying to get supplies to teachers and hope to have those out soon. But there’s been a high demand on products, backlogs in shipping and delays in getting them out of the warehouses once they do arrive because of staff shortages.

In large part, it’s been a distribution nightmare.

The state board, for instance, purchased five packs of disinfectant wipes per teacher. Because they’re flammable, though, they couldn’t be shipped from overseas by plane and instead had to come by boat, and then trucks. They’re not expected to be in Utah until Sept. 15. For at least the first few weeks of school, then, teachers will go without.

“We’re trying to make sure these supplies reach the classroom as quickly as possible,” said Sarah Young, director of strategic initiatives for the state board, who has been helping organize procurement of hard-to-get supplies. “There have definitely been some challenges.”

Where are the N95 masks?

One of the most requested supplies, medical-grade masks, have been among the most difficult to purchase and get into the hands of teachers. And it’s possible some staff won’t get those, as well, before they go back.

The Utah Board of Education distributed 750,000 cloth masks for teachers and students across the state, but those are generally not recommended for individuals who are high risk, need more protection or spend large amounts of time around bigs groups of people, as employees in education do.

So earlier this month, Gov. Gary Herbert promised that the state would provide five KN95 face masks and two plastic face shields for every educator and school staff member in Utah. Many teachers told The Salt Lake Tribune, though, that they have yet to see those. And some districts started class this week.

“We keep hearing from the governor about the five masks, but I haven’t gotten those,” said Elise Maxwell, an elementary teacher in Salt Lake City School District. Her district will be starting this fall online, but educators are still expected to meet one-on-one with students and their families before school begins; Maxwell wants to be safe during those visits.

Deborah Gatrell, who teaches at Hunter High in Granite District, added: “We don’t know what the governor is talking about.”

Margaret, who works for a school in northern Utah that welcomed students back this week, said she hasn’t received a mask from the state or her district. The Tribune verified her employment and agreed to identify her by only her first name as she feared retribution for speaking out. “I’ve had to buy my own,” she said, noting she spent $100 to get 50 KN95 masks.

“We just haven’t heard anything,” she said. “Maybe it’s coming? I hope so.”

For now, she said, teachers in her district are making their own plastic shields out of boxes and laminator paper in the hopes that it will provide extra protection. Margaret said her district hasn’t been willing to provide Plexiglas barriers.

Herbert tweeted Monday that the state has “finished distributing these [masks] to school districts,” and it’s now up to them to get them to educators. “Teachers who have not received requisite supplies should work with their administrators to address their needs,” he wrote. His spokeswoman also confirmed the KN95 shipments to the 41 public districts in Utah, as well as charter schools. In total, she said, 28,000 teachers and 16,000 staff members should receive them.

The spokesmen for both Canyons and Granite School Districts said they received the masks late Monday afternoon. Those have not been distributed yet, though their warehouse staff and custodians are working overtime to get them out.

A few charters and districts, though, report not having gotten any packages by Tuesday. Jordan has received some, but not all, said Young. At the very least, it looks like there will be delays.

Part of the problem, noted Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education, is that the state is distributing them through a different system than the board uses to get supplies to schools. It goes through counties rather than districts, he added.

Additionally, though the state is providing the high-quality masks, they aren’t meant to last a long time. Mark Ensign, a teacher at Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy in Lindon, said when he got his pack of KN95s, it came with a label to only use one for four hours maximum. “That gets me through like one week total, then,” he said.

“Don’t tell us that you’re going to supply all of these things and collect the political points,” he added, “and then not do enough. We are woefully underprepared.”

Others are being instructed to wear the masks for designated days of the weeks, re-using the same mask every Monday and Tuesday and so forth until they wear out.

Granite School District has purchased its own additional supply of KN95s, but even that is complicated. It bought enough for the high-risk individuals on its staff. And now the district is having teachers fill out a form to see if they qualify for those.

Brown said she submitted one of the requests and hasn’t heard back yet. Currently, she’s just got the cloth face mask provided by the district. It warns on the label, though: “Not intended to prevent or eliminate exposure to any disease, infection, or communicable disease.”

(Screenshot) Pictured is the warning label inside the cloth masks provided by Granite School District.

Granite’s spokesman, Ben Horsley, said “it’s the same quality of mask that everyone is wearing right now. They were never intended to be N95s.”

But the requests filled out by teachers, he added, should be approved before school starts next week. And…

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