With mask requirements forbidden, how are Utah schools planning to cope with the coronavirus?

Will plastic partitions, or staggered lunch times, or bus seating charts be back?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students were required to wear masks when they returned to Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, after months of learning only online. For this school year, the Utah Legislature has banned mask mandates in Utah schools.

In a few weeks, Utah schools will be throwing open their doors to students without the power to require masks or check whether those who are old enough have been vaccinated.

So what, if anything, are they planning to do to protect kids and employees as cases rise again? We asked a few Utah school districts what’s left on the table.

Last year, many schools sent out long statements outlining their plans to mitigate coronavirus risk. Will that happen again this year?

All of the districts contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune are preparing plans, but none were finalized. And it is likely some of the strategies will be different this year.

“Last year we had a whole reopening plan. It addressed everything — school buses, what to do in the lunchroom, classrooms — it was very detailed,” said Sandra Riesgraf, spokesperson for Jordan School District. “I don’t know if this year is going to be that detailed.”

[Read more: Unmasked Utah children are going to catch the Delta variant in school, infectious disease expert says]

Jordan, like other districts, was waiting for formal recommendations from the Utah Department of Health, expected soon, before finalizing its own policies.

Will students be able to distance themselves from others in the classroom?

Maybe, but options are limited and vary from school to school. A draft of the school recommendations by the Utah Department of Health shows state officials call generally for “social distancing” or “cohorting” — keeping smaller groups of students together each day.

But they make no recommendation as to how far apart students should be to prevent transmission. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested 6 feet, but the CDC also says younger children are generally at lower risk of COVID-19.

In any case, Utah has some of the nation’s largest class sizes. Just like last year, keeping as many as 30 elementary students 6 feet apart from each other in a standard classroom is physically impossible.

If a student or employee is diagnosed with COVID-19, how will the school keep track of everyone that patient was in contact with?

Some schools last year implemented permanent seating charts, both to limit contacts to smaller groups and to facilitate contact tracing in the event of a positive test.

But it’s not clear how much of that will happen again this year. At Salt Lake City School District, for instance, bus contacts will be identified with cameras rather than requiring kids to sit in the same place each day, said Yándary Chatwin, district spokesperson.

What about lunchtime?

Again, most district haven’t finalized plans. But last year, lunch plans were largely left to individual school administrators.

“Every school is different,” Chatwin said. “Our general policy is: space students as much as we could with the space that we had.”

At Granite School District, elementary schools likely will try to limit the exposure different classes and grade levels have with each other — and even the number of contacts students have within their own classrooms.

“We might be utilizing small-group strategies at lunch and recess; they might sit in the same seat at elementary lunch rooms each day, next to the same individuals using classroom seating charts,” said Ben Horsley, spokesperson for Granite School District.

In the Jordan School District, some schools had students eat outside when possible; others, like Herriman High School, put clear, plastic dividers up between students in the cafeteria, Riesgraf said.

Jordan schools also served lunches in individual containers last year, Riesgraf said; she didn’t know yet whether that would happen again this year.

Are districts making these decisions, or principals?

Some decisions — like bus protocols or general practices like staggering lunchtimes — will be applied across entire districts. For others, like certain lunch details, classroom seating or whether to have plastic partitions on desks — it may make more sense for individual schools to set up their own plans within district standards.

And some measures may be the choice of individual teachers, Horsley said. One teacher last year strung a clothesline across the classroom and hung clear plastic sheeting from it, to create a barrier, he said.

Teachers can run their classrooms to enhance their safety, he said, as long as the changes don’t contradict district policy or state law, or “impair instructional capacity.”

Will school activities like dances and concerts happen?

In Salt Lake City, these are the decisions where administrators are furthest from arriving at a decision, Chatwin said.

“I haven’t seen a section yet on things like concerts, or student performing arts: orchesta, band, school plays,” she said. “Last year we didn’t have them in person,” she added, though a couple of student music groups made recordings together online.

School dances and parties also were restricted last year in Salt Lake City. In the spring, when coronavirus cases were at their lowest, each school was allowed to choose two year-end activities, Chatwin said, such as a prom and an assembly.

But new cases in Salt Lake County now are appearing at twice the volume they were in mid-May.

Other districts, like Salt Lake City, still are waiting on state guidance and case data to make decisions. “It’s kind of a fluid situation right now,” Riesgraf said.

Is there anything districts can do to promote mask-wearing and vaccination, even though they can’t be required?

Reisgraf, Horsley and Chatwin all said their districts are strongly encouraging at least unvaccinated people to wear masks inside school buildings — and in Salt Lake City, the district already plans to encourage masking for vaccinated people as well.

County health officials have begun to confer with school officials about the prospect of requesting a mask mandate. But, in a meeting this week, administrators from different districts reported a wide range of likely responses from families.

“Across the county it really varied,” said Chatwin, who attended the meeting. “The farther south you went it was more like, ‘Yeah, if we have a mask mandate, it isn’t going to fly.’”

If the county does eventually seek a mask mandate, it would have to get approval from state lawmakers, who have banned mask mandates in schools.

Districts also are forbidden to require vaccines or ask students or employees to report their vaccine status. In Salt Lake City, about 75% of employees were vaccinated in the district’s own vaccine clinics and it is likely the total rate is much higher than that among staff. But only about 43% of teenagers in Salt Lake County have gotten both shots, according to county data.

Horsley said Granite’s goal was to keep the vaccination process as convenient as possible.

“The biggest thing we can and have been doing this summer and will continue to do is work with the county health department to sponsor vaccination clinics, especially in areas where we see low vaccination rates,” he said.