Utah parents frustrated as COVID-19 cases rise in schools

With schools unable to create mask mandates, parents are left to navigate public health advice and sometimes conflicting messages from districts.

As childhood coronavirus cases escalate throughout Utah, parents say they are encountering a chaotic process of testing delays, conflicting instructions on masks and quarantine, and frustration that their kids’ school year is getting off to such a rocky start.

“If we are not going to do mask mandates, I’m frustrated we didn’t amp up other ways to keep COVID in check,” said Emily Clifford, the mother of a Holladay first grader who tested positive last week for the coronavirus. “It’s been 18 months. We knew this was going to happen. But we keep making decisions when things are at traumatic levels, versus making any preparations.”

Cases among Utah children already were rising when schools began to open in mid-August; after that, case rates have shot up even more precipitously. Around 2,000 Utah children ages 5 to 11 tested positive for the virus from Aug. 15 to 30.

During the same two weeks last year, 240 kids that age tested positive. After that, cases rose sharply — and if the virus follows the same course this year, state modeling predicts, there could be 39,000 children ages 5 to 17 infected in this month alone.

Vaccines are available only to children ages 12 and up, and the state Legislature banned school districts from creating mask mandates. With the delta variant proving far more transmissible than previous strains of the virus, it is likely that many more will get sick.

Here’s what families are experiencing now.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cruz Sanchez, 6, catches up on school reading while hanging out with his dad Aaron on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. Cruz who was diagnosed with COVID-19 remains asymptomatic as the family try an quarantine him as best they can but still maintain some family closeness.

‘Testing wasn’t easy’

As notifications of classroom exposures flutter through school districts and kids develop symptoms, just getting children and their families tested has become more onerous in recent weeks.

Of 14 state-provided TestUtah sites in Salt Lake County, only two had next-day availability as of Tuesday; in Utah County, next-day testing was available only at the Payson site. None of Walgreens’ testing locations in Salt Lake or Utah counties had any appointments available as of Tuesday, according to the company’s website, and only three Davis County and three Weber County locations had “few appointments available.”

Other providers appeared to have availability — but even with appointments, families reported long waits.

“We’ve been in line for over an hour and a half,” Kristen Clifford, Emily’s sister-in-law, said in a phone call Monday while she and her family waited outside the Utah Department of Health office building in Salt Lake City. Her 5-year-old son had caught the virus during his second week of kindergarten in Murray, and she and her husband — both fully vaccinated — got sick a couple of days later.

“There are no restrooms,” she said, while her congested, feverish 1-year-old cried in the back seat. “Literally, people are [relieving themselves] in the bushes right now.”

Meanwhile, cars were lined up before 6:30 a.m. Monday at the testing site operated at the Canyons School District office and had filled the parking lot by 8 a.m., said district spokesman Jeff Haney.

Neil Hartner, a Cottonwood Heights father, said he struggled to get tested after he developed symptoms last weekend following his kids’ diagnoses the previous week.

“Testing wasn’t easy because the home kits are sold out almost everywhere locally,” Hartner said, “and appointments are booked out two days.”

He eventually got a pharmacist to dig an at-home test kit out of storage; he tested positive even though he was vaccinated. Health officials asked him to get a follow-up test to confirm, and the earliest appointment he could secure was two days after he first started feeling breathless.

As more kids and parents pass the virus around and other families receive classroom exposure notices, these testing problems could stand in the way of students getting diagnosed before they spread it to even more children, Emily Clifford warned.

“Testing is a lot of work, and two full-time working parents can’t sit in a line for two hours to see if maybe their kid does have COVID,” she said. “Someone who’s on the fence, someone who’s half-listening to the misinformation but still thinks, ‘Maybe I should get my kid tested before sending him to school’ — if they try to get a test and it’s a three-day wait, they’re not going to do it.”

If they do get tested, getting the results may take awhile.

Hartner’s 11-year-old son developed a sore throat and a bad cough after his first week at Butler Middle School in Cottonwood Heights. Canyons School District staff told Hartner his son needed a lab-processed PCR test, which took a day to schedule and another three days to produce results.

Kristen Clifford was on a similar time frame. Her sick toddler was too young to be tested at the state-run site, so she booked an appointment with his doctor.

“Our pediatrician said to expect 36 hours because the testing sites are ‘so overwhelmed,’” she said. The family still hadn’t received results as of Wednesday, nearly a week after her other son first began to feel sick.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cruz Sanchez, 6, maintains his distance from his siblings but still participates in outside activities at home after being diagnosed with COVID-19 but remains asymptomatic on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, five days following his positive test.

‘I got mixed messages’

When kids do test positive, the next steps are not always clear.

Because the first positive result on Hartner’s son was through an at-home test kit, the father said, he called his children’s schools before the PCR test was complete — to notify the district and to find out the best course of action for his 9-year-old daughter, who had been exposed to her brother but didn’t have symptoms.

“It seemed like the school’s not even sure what the protocol was,” Hartner said. “At first, they said she’d have to stay home because [her brother] tested positive, but then they said she could go to school but she had to wear a mask all of the time.”

The Legislature has barred Canyons School District from requiring students to wear masks to school even if they have been exposed to a confirmed coronavirus patient, Haney confirmed; the district only relays health officials’ advice to quarantine or wear a mask after exposure.

But the wording of the district’s coronavirus plan is somewhat ambiguous, even though the first section of the plan prominently proclaims, “No Mask Requirement at School” and goes on to characterize post-exposure masking as a “recommendation,” another section states that after an exposure, students “may remove their masks at school” if they test negative a week later — which a family could read to mean that masks are required before then.

Haney acknowledged that nuances of the district policy could be miscommunicated in a call between families and school employees, who were operating under different policies last school year, before the Legislature set new rules for schools dealing with COVID-19.

But Canyons is not the only school district where parents have been confused.

In Utah County, public health officials and the Alpine School District sent competing notifications to parents whose kids were exposed to COVID-19 during the first week of school. The Utah County Health Department’s notice tells parents that unmasked students who are exposed to the coronavirus “should” wear a mask at school for 10 days, or seven days if they test negative. At that point, if they have no symptoms, “they no longer need to wear a mask.”

Parents who received that notice also received a “clarification” from school officials, reiterating that students do not have to wear a mask, regardless of exposure and stressing that the health department’s notification was simply a form letter with recommendations.

Davis County parents received a similar pingpong of communiques from the Davis School District. An initial letter from the superintendent provided guidelines for elementary students nearly identical to those outlined by the Utah County Health Department. But in a “follow-up” letter on July 30, Superintendent Reid Newey summarized the Legislature’s edict and wrote: “K-12 students will not be required to wear masks at any time under any circumstance.”

Emily Clifford said she also got “mixed messages” from the Salt Lake County Health Department and the Granite School District after her 6-year-old son tested positive last week. Health officials said her three other children “needed to quarantine,” but the two parents, both vaccinated, could skip isolation if they wore masks.

“But what I heard at school was sort of that they couldn’t require me to do anything,” Clifford said. “I had to call back because I was confused.”

For Hartner’s part, the hodgepodge of instructions was irrelevant; his daughter stayed home from school anyway because a classmate’s mom is immunocompromised due to cancer treatments.

“You don’t want to spread it to a kid,” Hartner said, “and have them take it back to a family member.”

Hartner’s 9-year-old daughter tested positive for the coronavirus later that week.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emily Clifford and her husband, Aaron Sanchez, check in on their son Cruz, 6, as he gets a few minutes of screen time before bed on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. Dad’s office has served as their son’s space during his quarantine after being diagnosed with COVID-19, but has remained asymptomatic.

‘It feels like a gut punch’

Even if students were under actual orders to quarantine or mask after exposure, it may take too long for those measures to have an effect.

With days already lost to scheduling a test and then getting results, it may take even longer for contact tracers to confirm a child’s case poses a risk of exposure — and longer still for that to appear on schools’ records and trigger notifications to other families.

Emily and Kristen Cliffords’ children both tested positive Aug. 27. The Granite School District’s online portal for coronavirus information still showed both boys’ elementary schools had zero cases three days later.

“I get that there’s a lag time,” Emily Clifford said, “but if you’re a parent and making decisions, it’s hard to figure out what to do.”

At this point, she said, it seems to her that parents have been robbed of every available tool to keep their kids safe from the coronavirus while they are too young to be vaccinated: Tests are becoming more difficult to schedule, the results arrive late, school notifications can take too long, when they occur it doesn’t necessarily trigger protective action, and while all those days pass, schools can’t require kids to wear masks.

County health officials can order school mask mandates, but they can be overturned by county officials or lawmakers. Kristen Clifford said she and her husband pleaded with Salt Lake County Council members to approve the mask order issued last month by county health director Dr. Angela Dunn; it failed 6-3, along party lines with Republicans voting against it. Clifford said only 20% to 30% of her son’s classmates were wearing masks.

“It’s just infuriating,” Kristen Clifford said. “My son has asthma, we’ve been working really hard for 18 months to stay away from COVID, and it feels like a gut punch after one week of kindergarten.”

Meanwhile, cases among children are likely to proliferate as the school year continues. In Salt Lake County, nearly every age group saw case rates rise more quickly during the two weeks after school started than during the two weeks before — but the largest jump by far was among children 5 to 11. Researchers funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently projected that without any masks or testing regimens, more than 75% of elementary students who have not already had the virus would be infected about 35 days into the school year.

And Utah child hospitalizations last week were at the highest rate since they peaked in February.

The idea that COVID-19 is not dangerous among children was “wishful thinking,” said Stephen Goldstein, a virologist and researcher at the University of Utah.

“I don’t think that made a lot of sense,” he said, “based on what we know about other respiratory viruses.”