As Salt Lake City kids resume in-person classes, don’t expect a COVID-19 surge, expert says

The smaller district’s advantages include learning from its neighbors, which have had in-person classes since fall.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign at Salt Lake City's East High School addresses COVID-19 on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.

Welcoming Salt Lake City kids back to classes in person isn’t expected to drive a large surge in COVID-19 cases, a Salt Lake County epidemiologist said.

Among the reasons, and the advantages the district now enjoys: It is benefitting from lessons learned by other districts, which started in-person classes last fall; not all kids opted to return, and those who did are attending just two days a week; teachers now qualify for vaccine and are getting inoculated; rapid tests to catch cases early have become widely available.

And research done in Salt Lake County is continuing to show that students in younger grades have a low risk of catching the virus in class.

Mary Hill, epidemiology supervisor for the Salt Lake County Health Department, said she expects the district will closely follow best practices that have been developed since it stopped in-person learning last March.

It “is one of those districts that is very good about following everything to a T,” Hill said.

A later, smaller return

Salt Lake City is the last school district in the state to implement in-person learning this school year. The other four districts in Salt Lake County — Granite, Jordan, Canyons and Murray — have offered the option of at least some in-person learning since last fall.

Those districts have invited kids back in-person four to five days a week.

In Salt Lake City, in-person attendance is being limited to two days each week, to keep classes small enough to permit social distancing. And like in the other districts, parents may “opt out,” keeping their children at home for remote learning.

About one-third of the district’s 20,536 students have decided to continue learning from home, said district spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin.

Salt Lake City School District is also one of the smallest in the county, serving 20,536 students. That accounts for less than 12% of students in Salt Lake County.

Only the Murray School District, at 6,097, has fewer. Three of the county’s five districts have significantly more students: Granite (61,851), Jordan (56,102) and Canyons (33,488).

Testing and vaccinating

Salt Lake County’s other districts had outbreaks during the first months of the school year, which led to individual schools shutting down in-person learning for up to two weeks at a time.

But since January, Hill said, students have had the option to “test to stay” — to be tested for COVID-19 and remain in classes if they are negative, rather than seeing their school send all students home as a precaution during outbreaks.

The health department has seen few new cases from students who are tested under the initiative, Hill said. Previously, the state had advised schools to close for two weeks once an outbreak reached 15 students. The change has been made possible by expanded access to rapid antigen tests.

The Salt Lake City district, Hill said, has learned from its neighbors that “it’s important to follow the school manual guidelines, do ‘test to stay’ or virtual [learning], because it does keep [the case numbers] lower in the school population.”

" … And you’ve got to follow the mask mandate,” she said. “We really have learned that if you wear masks, there’s not a lot of risk.”

Testing has already given Salt Lake City schools insight, Chatwin said. On the first days of reopening this week, the district tested its secondary students who were coming back in person.

Of the 2,800 who were tested, only four were positive, the district reported.

Under the district’s plan, teachers generally have in-person classes four days a week. But educators became eligible for vaccine beginning in January, and they will remain one of the few priority groups who can get inoculated until that pool expands March 1.

Younger kids are at low risk

Hill said a study, to be published soon by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, uses data from Salt Lake County to examine the risk of contracting the coronavirus in public schools. Among the findings, Hill said, is that “there’s essentially little to no risk in elementary school.”

The reason is that elementary school students wear their masks in class, and don’t participate much in sports and other extracurricular activities, “because those activities are where masks may not be used,” Hill said.

“Where we’re seeing a lot of the spread occurring is after school, socially,” Hill said, and more middle school and high school students gather informally or for activities.

Younger and older students returned to in-person classes at essentially the same rate. Elementary school students began returning on Jan. 25 and Feb. 1, staggered by grade; 36% chose to continue learning online.

For secondary students — largely 7th through 12th grade — it’s 35%. Of those who returned either part time or for all the of classes they are allowed to attend, the majority chose full participation, Chatwin said.

If Salt Lake City’s reopening does drive an increase in cases — whether a small uptick or sizable surge — it will take a week or more for those cases to begin to appear in the county’s statistics.

— Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this story.