Utah high schools’ spike in COVID-19 cases blamed on parties, extracurriculars

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Riverton High fans cheer for the Silverwolves as they play the Jordan High Beet Diggers on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. Spikes in COVID-19 cases at high schools have been linked to social gatherings and extracurricular activities, like football games, which could be halted if numbers continue to climb.

Teenagers still flock to Brown Floral in Holladay, just as they have since 1915, to order corsages and boutonnieres perfectly matched to the dresses and ties they plan to wear to their homecoming dance. Only this year, because of COVID-19 precautions, no social functions are being sponsored by the high schools and few are being held on school grounds.

Yet the orders keep coming, and at a steady enough pace that owner Tracie Drage and her staff have come up with a name for the replacement parties being held at parks and homes: Pop-up dances.

“We’re thrilled these kids are finding safe groups to celebrate,” Drage said. “But it’s different.”

There’s reason to believe, however, that many of the privately organized gatherings are not safe.

COVID-19 cases are spiking among Utah’s teenagers and young adults. Eight of the state’s high schools have had to close because of outbreaks just a month into the school year. And school officials and an infectious disease expert are pointing to activities outside the classroom — extracurricular and social — as the main sources of the spread.

If something isn’t done to curtail those events, according to Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease expert for Intermountain Healthcare, things are only going to get worse. Severe actions, such as halting all after-school activities or taking classes completely online, could be warranted.

“It’s all on the table,” Stenehjem said. “We really have to give that some quick consideration at the school level, you know, along with the Utah Department of Health advising that, because I think clearly, if we don’t do anything, we’re not going to see a change in the trajectory of our kids.”

Utah’s spike

Health experts anticipated a rise in coronavirus cases when school started. For young children, that expectation hasn’t borne fruit. The 0-1 and 1-14 age groups have the lowest case numbers in the state. Among the 15-24 age group, however, cases have been spiking dramatically, leading to record-high case counts.

As of Thursday, outbreaks at eight high schools have caused them to temporarily stop in-person classes. They include Alta, Brighton, Corner Canyon, Granger, Olympus, Copper Hills, Riverton and the Draper 1 campus of the American Preparatory Academy charter school.

Only one middle school, Draper Park, has reported an outbreak of 15 or more students, the threshold at which the state health department recommends schools go virtual for at least two weeks. No elementary schools have reported outbreaks reaching that threshold.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Riverton head coach Jody Morgan gives instructions to a player during prep football action between Riverton and the Jordan Beet Diggers, on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. Riverton played the game despite the high school closing for two days for cleaning after at least 15 people associated with the school tested positive for COVID-19.

Stenehjem said the difference is that high schoolers tend to be more social and more involved in extracurricular activities such as sports, theater, marching band or even chess club. Many of those don’t mesh well with standard precautions against SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that transmits the COVID-19 disease — such as wearing a mask, standing 6 feet apart and gathering outside.

“Some of those precautions we take in the classroom are not being taken in extracurricular activities,” Stenehjem said. “So that allows asymptomatic kids to go ahead and transmit SARS-CoV-2 unbeknownst to them.”

COVID fears

Utah was the first state to have a high school football game canceled because of the coronavirus. On Aug. 12, Bingham backed out of its contest against Weber after three players tested positive. A flurry of other cancellations followed, including both Olympus and Riverton losing their opponents for Friday night to COVID-related issues, resulting in them playing each other with just one day of preparation.

But Olympus coach Aaron Whitehead isn’t complaining. He’s relieved his players can take the field after Granite School District announced both Olympus and Granger would be shutting down for two weeks starting Thursday after each reached the 15-case threshold. The district had said it would make no exceptions for sports and extracurricular activities but changed its stance Wednesday, allowing games to be played as long as there are no spectators.

Whitehead acknowledges his players take on some risk of contracting the disease by competing in a full-contact sport. Yet he argues the mental and physical benefits of playing outweigh the risks, especially if those risks are tempered by taking precautionary measures.

He said his team has followed all Utah Department of Health, Utah High School Activities Association and district guidelines. That includes preseason weight-room limits and restrictions on the use of fields also sought after by the soccer and cheer squads. It also includes encouraging his players to choose distance learning, at least during the season, and instituting a 9 p.m. curfew, which he said makes him “not the most popular person outside the football program.”

Whitehead said his team has had zero COVID-19 cases. Still, he worries his team could yet become a coronavirus casualty.

“My fear is, we’ve done it the right way. My kids have made sacrifices,” he said. “Other kids have done these traditions, these rites of passage. Our football players have had no part of those. Their sacrifices have kept the season going.”

Olympus Principal Stephen Perschon said it’s not the organized team activities that are the problem.

“There are very few cases that we can actually tie to any specific extracurricular activity or school-level activities,” he said. "Masks are working. Kids are doing an awesome job on campus. But those same groups of students hanging out together, either as a sports team or as a drama club or some other friend group, will then leave campus... you can sit at the campus exit and watch how fast those masks come off in the cars as soon as those kids leave school property.

“So that’s the most challenging thing that we are seeing, is that while it may not be happening on school property, it’s still impacting our schools.”

A desire to dance

Kids mingle under the festive glow of white lights strewn up around a backyard. They’re wearing fancy dresses, high heels, suits, ties and big smiles. At any other time, the large gathering held last week at a private residence in Salt Lake City would go down as one of the most successful in the long tradition of the Black and White Party at East High.

Instead, some parents, administrators and even students saw it as a coronavirus incubator at worst and a bad example at best.

According to several reports, the group numbered far more than the 50 allowed in Salt Lake County, which is in the yellow stage of restrictions, students weren’t socially distanced, and few wore masks.

And with most of the state’s high schools celebrating homecoming within the next few weeks, more pop-up dances are surely on the way. One Spanish Fork mother said her son has been invited to at least 15 homecoming parties. His dedication to wearing a mask has already cost him some friends, she said, leading her to believe masks and social distancing won’t be a priority.

The parents who hosted the party for East students declined to be interviewed. One did, however, mention in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune some apprehension about how the pandemic and lack of social interaction will affect kids' mental and physical well-being. It’s not unlike the benefits Whitehead said his Olympus High football players get from being on the team.

Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday during his televised monthly news conference that he understands the motivation to host a homecoming party — something he said is rooted in “love and concern” for children.

“They’re at that age at school, the socialization, the opportunities to interact with your classmates and your friends, make new friends is a real, legitimate issue,” he said. “But we don’t want to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

Herbert said parents need to teach their children “that sometimes things happen in life that make it a little inconvenient, and there’s a sacrifice required.”

He pointed to the efforts of those who lived through World War II, with men going off to battle while women stepped into the workplace. People rationed gasoline and grew food in victory gardens.

“I mean, the sacrifice was significant in order to win that war,” Herbert said. “It’s a little disappointing that we have today, people saying, ‘Oh, having to wear a mask in crowded conditions, having to forgo having the junior prom celebrations or fans in the football games, that’s too much of a sacrifice to ask of this generation.’”

Emily Sutherland, director of the Salt Lake City School District’s social and emotional learning program, agreed. As a parent, she said she understands the heartbreak of seeing your kids disappointed. But, she said, that disappointment can be translated into a valuable life lesson.

“I don’t know what to say except I’m not sure having an event anyway is the answer. I don’t think having a big party because your school’s not having homecoming is the answer. And I think the rise in positive cases of COVID is sort of showing us that,” said Sutherland, who emphasized she is an educator, not a doctor or mental health specialist.

“The answer is working through it as a family and allowing yourself to feel sad and letting your kid feel sad. Trying to find other, safer ways of filling those needs and not trying to re-create it. We just can’t re-create everything we’re missing right now.”

And trying to re-create life before COVID-19 might cause kids to miss out on even more milestones and experiences. That is the concern of Shawn Rossiter, a parent of a freshman and a senior at East and the school’s mountain biking club coach. He said his family and the mountain bike league have strictly followed the state’s health guidelines so they can have a season. As of the last board meeting, he said, no more than 10 coronavirus cases had been diagnosed among the roughly 7,500 athletes and coaches.

“This long in, you know, I try to give people the benefit of doubt. But it almost seems like a little willful ignorance at some point,” Rossiter said of the large private parties. “You know, if our kids don’t get to race because some other parent let their kid do stupid things, it’s going to hurt."

East is in the Salt Lake City School District, which began the academic year entirely online. Despite having no in-person classes, spokesperson Yandary Chatwin said the district currently has 14 cases of COVID-19 among students. Seven are high schoolers, and six have been participating in an extracurricular activity.

“If kids want to make sure they can come to school in person,” Chatwin said, “they and their parents need to make sure they’re following the guidelines in the community as well.”

Perschon, the Olympus principal, sent two emails to parents in addition to a terse one from the district to remind them that their actions can lead to consequences that affect the entire school. Other than that, he said, there’s not much he can do. He will not, as some parents have asked of him, spend his Saturday nights banging on doors and breaking up parties.

If social events like homecoming aren’t sacrificed now, he said, then arguably more important celebrations, such as prom and graduation, won’t stand a chance.

“We fully empathize with you, just like we empathize with the Class of 2020 who lost three months of their school year with a total suspension,” Perschon said. “I think it’s important to remember that attending school in the midst of a global pandemic is a privilege. And if we’re not going to follow the rules that will help keep us safe, then we’re not going to be able to do that.”

— Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this article.

Correction, Sept. 27, 7:45 p.m. • A previous version of this story mistakenly said the Olympus High School volleyball and cross country teams were quarantining.