Robert Gehrke: We can use the holiday breaks to reboot our school strategy and perhaps get a handle on the coronavirus

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

My son’s high school went back to in-person classes last week after their second 14-day stint going online-only.

Jordan School District, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus, recently voted to move 14 of its schools, five of them high schools, online — the most sweeping action of any district to date.

Davis School District moved six high schools and a middle school online; Granite District added one; and Canyons moved two high schools and a middle school to remote learning.

All told, more than 25 schools, the vast majority of them high schools, were forced to abandon in-person learning as COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the state.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that our current push for in-person learning, especially when it comes to high schools, is not sustainable.

To be clear: I am firmly in the camp that believes in-person learning is important. I was talking to my son last week and he admits he’s not getting the same education online as he would in person (he has two classes a week in person now).

There’s value in interacting with teachers directly, getting questions answered, socializing with friends, doing group projects.

And that’s not to mention the challenges lower-income students have in accessing online classes and losing out on what are in many instances the only meals they eat.

But as we learn more about the virus, we need to be constantly reevaluating how we balance the important benefits of school with trying to get on top of the runaway spread we’re seeing — and I am mainly talking here about how we treat high schools.

“There’s an emerging consensus around that country,” Dr. Andy Pavia, head of pediatric infectious disease at the University of Utah, told me, “that we’re doing well in elementary schools.”

But students in that 15- to 18-year-old range continue to have startlingly high rates of infection, more than 2,300 cases in the past week, which they then spread to friends and family members. On Monday, we likely will surpass 10,000 school-associated cases (which includes teachers).

High schools should not be the sole focus, while leaving bars, restaurants, gyms, churches and sporting events open. But being smarter about how we treat high schools ought to be part of the holistic approach.

And right now, some of the logic behind how we approach curbing the spread in high schools doesn’t make sense.

It doesn’t make sense to praise a 3.6% positive test rate among high school football players — it doesn’t make sense to be playing high school football, period — when the same rate spread across a high school of 2,000 would give you 72 positive cases, five times the number where the state would recommend moving classes online.

Likewise, it doesn’t make sense for Gov. Gary Herbert to keep saying over and over that we expected to see cases rise as schools reopened — a spike we have definitely witnessed — but dismiss the risk of spread in schools.

I’m not suggesting students are getting infected in class (the data suggests they aren’t), but whether it’s in school or in extracurricular activities, it doesn’t really matter. You can’t really predict a spike when school starts and then when it happens say it’s not because of school.

At the very least, students’ patterns of interaction changed. And if the change was unrelated to being in traditional in-person school, we wouldn’t have seen an explosion of cases when Davis School District went from a staggered schedule to a full-time, in-person schedule.

And it never has made sense that school districts appear to be deciding how to educate children without considering how widespread the virus is in their communities.

Pavia said we started the school year with a fairly high rate of infection in the communities, higher than it should have been to open schools safely. That has only increased since.

With the holidays approaching, we actually have an opportunity to use these school recesses to reboot our strategy — especially when it comes to high schools.

Rather than coming back after the Thanksgiving break, schools ought to move online for the three weeks before Christmas break and suspend extracurricular activities. That would give districts from Nov. 25 to Jan. 4 as a circuit breaker period — buying six weeks of space while disrupting only 15 days of classes.

(Let’s be honest, the way we’re headed, many of these schools won’t be able to sustain in-person classes anyway.)

After the new year, we should use data on the prevalence of the virus in the community to decide how — or if — schools will come back. Recommendations from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggest schools shouldn’t offer in-person classes when there’s a daily case rate of 25 per 100,000 people.

By comparison, last week, the state averaged 94 cases per 100,000 people. Utah County is at 113 and Salt Lake County is at 104.

“Whatever is going on in the community is inevitably going on in the school,” Lyndsay Keegan, a professor of epidemiology at the U., told me.

If we get under that 25 per 100,000 rate — with a positive test rate of 10% — then perhaps districts could start bringing students back to the classroom on a staggered schedule (although Harvard suggests a staggered schedule only after rates fall below 10).

Get the rate low enough, and schools can bring back students full time and restart extracurricular activities.

Districts should also use the downtime to stockpile rapid tests — which would likely require state aid — to mirror what colleges and universities are attempting to do, with an aim of testing as many students as possible once a week or, at the very least, taking a large random sample in each school.

“Right now, without a vaccine, the only thing we can do is increase testing so you find people sooner and you can isolate them faster and ideally contact trace,” Keegan said. “If you can test every week, twice a week, you don’t have a lot of time between the time you get infected and the time you’re isolated.”

Again, I envision this as one piece of a larger equation, and the goal should remain providing the best education we can safely offer.

Local school boards will decide where we go. But if we take a pause to get control of case rates, structure the type of learning based on the community data, and really beef up testing, we can get high school students through the year, protect the communities and hopefully have a vaccine deployed by the time classes start again next fall.