As educators in Utah and across the United States are returning to the classrooms this fall, a new analysis says teachers in Utah are among the most vulnerable in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The analysis, released on Thursday by Insurify, a Massachusetts-based car insurance company, looked at “publicly-accessible data to determine the states whose K-12 teacher populations’ health and safety are at the highest risk due to COVID-19,” according to the methodology of the analysis.

Insurify data scientists evaluated all 50 states based on three factors: public school infrastructure, which was assessed by looking at school crowding and funding per student; teacher age, salary and union influence; and “healthcare quality and readiness to reopen safely,” which was determined by looking at recent changes in coronavirus case and death counts, testing capacity and ICU bed availability.

The analysts used data from a variety of sources, including the National Center for Education Statistics, National Education Association, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers.

“From these statistics, a weighted composite score of 100 was calculated for each state,” the data scientists wrote. “Higher composite scores were indicative of safer states for teachers during the pandemic, while lower composite scores were indicative of states that were less safe for teachers during the pandemic.”

The analysts assigned each state a letter grade ranging from “A+” to “F” based on how the state’s composite score “measures up to the national average.”

Utah received a composite score of 55 out of 100, an “F” grade, ranking as the state “with the most vulnerable teacher population to COVID-19 this school year.”

There are 22.9 students per teacher in Utah, 47.6% above the national average, while the average student funding per year is $7,253, 43.4% lower than the national average, according to the analysis.

“While healthcare quality and accessibility are above-average in the state, as is teacher union strength, dismal rates of school crowding, below-average public school funding, and school reopening plans outweigh these benefits and are putting teachers at the highest risk in the country,” the Insurify analysts wrote. “In fact, the Beehive State has already seen numerous teacher protests and spikes in resignations this month. With overcrowding already an issue, fewer teachers than usual this fall will put yet another strain on schools.”

Idaho was the only other state to receive an “F” grade, with a student-to-teacher ratio 18% higher than the national average and per-student funding 37.3% below the national average.

Arizona and Indiana received “D+” and “D-” grades, respectively, while Oklahoma, Alabama and West Virginia were all graded a “D.”

Five states received “A+” or “A” grades: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

“Commonalities among these five states are low rates of school crowding, above-average school funding per student, and better-than-average healthcare,” wrote the analysts.

When asked at a Thursday news conference about the analysis, state officials raised questions with its methodology and conclusions.

“I thought the criteria were quite interesting,” Tami Pyfer, Gov. Gary Herbert’s education advisor, said during the news conference, questioning the relevance of criteria such as teacher union strength and teacher pay.

“So I’m not sure how they weighted each factor to come up with that designation,” Pyfer said, “but I can just say that we have emphasized over and over how important it is that we protect our teachers (and) that we cannot have quality schools without educators that are safe and feel safe and protected.”

Still, Pyfer acknowledged some of the concerns raised in the analysis, including overcrowded classrooms, but said school districts are addressing this by implementing online and hybrid forms of learning during the pandemic.

“I think you’re going to see work on social distancing as a way that we can modify and help (improve school safety),” Herbert said at the press conference. “Certainly our goal is to make sure that our students are safe and our teachers are safe and those involved in our schools (are safe).”

The full results of the Insurify analysis can be viewed at http://insurify.com/insights/most-at-risk-teachers-to-covid-19.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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