Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.

Utah students will be allowed to go to school even if they’ve been directly exposed to COVID-19, according to new guidelines released Thursday by the state health department.

Under what officials are calling “a modified quarantine,” parents will be given the choice to keep children home or send them back to class after close contact with the contagious virus — which they can do as long as the student is not showing any symptoms and no one in the immediate household has tested positive. Teachers and staff, too, can continue to come to work with the same rules, especially in cases where there are no substitutes available.

“This will allow children to stay in the educational system and get the classroom setting that they need,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, during a virtual news conference Thursday.

Dunn said the process is the same one that essential employees in Utah, such as medical professionals or grocery workers, have used during the outbreak. “And it has worked,” she added.

Schools should only shut down, the health department advises, after 15 individuals have tested positive in the same time frame (or 10% in schools with fewer than 100 people). And then, the closure should be for two weeks, the incubation period of the virus. For a single classroom to go online, there would need to be three people with COVID-19.

Otherwise, schools statewide are encouraged to operate in person under the governor’s orders for this fall.

“We’re not going to sit back in the corner and wring our hands and say, ‘We can’t do anything,’” Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday.

(Laura Seitz | Deseret News, pool) Sydnee Dickson, superintendent, Utah State Board of Education and Gov. Gary Herbert speak after a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 30, 2020.

The health guidance for schools, a 102-page document, is the most specific direction from the state yet for reopening. Previously, most planning had been left to local districts.

The manual comes after the governor sat down with education leaders Wednesday, including the Utah Education Association, which had called for all schools to start the year online. Instead, and without the teachers union’s support, Herbert announced the release of the manual.

It’s filled largely with prevention recommendations, instructions for various scenarios, and a note about the governor’s one mandate: that students and staff in public K-12 schools wear masks. It also makes the case for a return to schools as “critical to the long-term health and economic success of our state.” And it pushes in-person learning as the best for all students, but especially those in marginalized communities or for kids without internet access.

The key policy set by the guidelines is the “modified quarantine” plan, billed as a way to keep more kids in the classroom longer.

It instructs administrators not to treat cases of exposure the same as positive cases. That happened this spring when Murray School District shut down before any other in the state, after students there were in contact with someone who had the virus.

It mostly doesn’t matter where a student or teacher is exposed, the document says, including if there’s a case directly in a classroom. If they’re alerted by their local health department that they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive, they are asked only to check for symptoms twice a day and wear a mask if they plan to come to school. Only those who test positive or live with someone who does have to stay home.

However, while the quarantine is “modified” to allow class attendance, it forbids exposed individuals from participating in sports or clubs for two weeks (even with a mask). The guidance notes that’s because “it increases the number of people they may expose to the virus that causes COVID-19,” with most extracurriculars spanning ages and grade levels. The country has already seen the virus spread among professional sports teams.

And concerns remain about spreading the virus in the classroom. Kids generally don’t have serious complications from the disease, but they can carry it and pass it on to others without symptoms. Meanwhile, many teachers are considered at high risk for complications based on their age and health conditions.

The manual acknowledges that “students, teachers, and employees are likely to be exposed to COVID-19 many times during the school year.”

When asked about that Thursday, Herbert insisted “we appreciate our teachers,” while adding that “these are challenging times.” His priority, he said, is returning to the classroom, doing so as safely as possible, and allowing those who want to participate in person to do so.

“I’m sure there’s no guarantee that it can’t be spread in schools, like it could happen anywhere else,” he added. “We’re trying to mitigate and minimize the risk. … But clearly, the goal for all of us is to find a way to open up our school system.”

He pointed to his mask mandate as one of the larger efforts to keep educators and students safe, even if they’ve been exposed.

Additionally, many school districts will be holding classes online or in a combination of remote and in person, said Sydnee Dickson, the state superintendent of public instruction. She believes that will cut down on cases, especially if high-risk teachers are allowed to work at home or do a livestream in a separate classroom away from students.

“There are a lot of mitigation strategies that our schools are putting into place,” she said.

They include adjusting recess and lunch schedules to avoid large gatherings and trying to seat students as far apart as possible. (Six feet, though, is often hard to reach in Utah’s crowded classrooms that often have more than 30 kids.) And the manual, she said, will be continuously updated.

Dunn added that staying home when sick and good hand washing routines will also go a long way. “Everything we’re doing right now comes with some risks and benefits. And in this case, the benefit is getting kids to school,” she said.

But Heidi Matthews, the president of the Utah Education Association, doesn’t believe the health department’s document provides enough protection, especially for teachers. As the leader of the state’s largest teachers union, she called earlier this week for most schools in the state to start the year remotely until cases of the virus decline. That came after more than 150 educators rallied a few days earlier and as the state has seen nearly 40,000 positive patients.

"It doesn't address our concerns," she said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teacher Cara Bailey joins protesters during the Mask-In and Car Caravan protest at the State Capitol to demand the governor and other state and local leaders ensure that Utah schools protect students and staff when schools reopen, on Thursday, July 23, 2020.
Buy this image

Specifically, the union wanted to see teachers have some assurances on the ability to use their sick leave. But, she said, the document does the opposite.

It says: “If having a substitute teacher will negatively impact student learning or there is not another employee who can do the job of the person who was exposed, teachers and employees who have had an exposure to COVID-19, but who do not have symptoms, may go to work.”

Matthews sees that as telling teachers to go “back to the classroom regardless of risk.”

She said there was already a significant substitute shortage in the state before the pandemic — as well as a teacher shortage. She believes the plan will exacerbate both, noting: “They’re not going to be putting themselves in this environment.”

She also is concerned about enforcement.

“There are many, many statements in the manual that say, ‘We recommend that you do this’ or ‘You should do this,’” Matthews added. “But there’s no mandate or enforcement for compliance. That isn’t giving our teachers and the people in schools the reassurance that they need.”

She said the union doesn't support the plan, and she called the meeting with the governor Wednesday "a challenge."

Meanwhile, Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare, agreed with the UEA, saying in a separate news conference Thursday that with transmission as high as it is, “I think opening schools is going to be pretty dangerous.”

He said the experiences of European countries show that, “yes, you can open schools safely, as long as you have community transmission control. And that’s a huge if.” Stenehjem urged a focused statewide drive during August to lower the daily case count — down to the 100 or 150 daily counts that Utah saw in April and May.

As of Thursday, Utah’s seven-day average for new cases is 508 per day. Herbert set a goal earlier this month to get that average down to 500 by Aug. 1, which is Saturday.

More from the state’s health guidance for schools:

Close contact and who will be notified • When a person who works in or attends a school tests positive for COVID-19, only those who were in close contact with that individual will be informed. Alerts will not be sent to the entire school or district. Close contact means being closer than 6 feet to a person with COVID-19 for 15 minutes or longer.

Schools can make a list of individuals who are considered high-risk for serious complications, and people on the list can be informed of a positive case if they were in the same room as the person.

Seating charts and contact tracing • To help track which individuals came in close contact with someone with the virus, schools are advised to have seating charts for every function of the day. That includes in class, at lunch, at assemblies and on buses.

The health department also is encouraging schools to keep the same cohort of students together as much as possible to avoid spread. That will be harder in high schools, where kids can have multiple classes.

“If one of your students, teachers, or employees tests positive for COVID-19, it does not mean he or she did anything wrong,” the guidance notes. “It also does not mean your school did anything wrong.”

Isolation rooms • School are advised to set up an isolation room, where students who show coronavirus symptoms can wait to be picked up.

Staying home • Parents are asked to check their children every morning for symptoms. The health department says that schools should not require a doctor’s note to confirm a COVID-19 case. The best way to prevent spread, it adds, is to let teachers and students know they don’t need to come to school if they’re not feeling well.

Testing • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state only recommend getting a coronavirus test if you have symptoms.

More on face coverings • Herbert has already outlined exemptions to his mask mandate for those with disabilities or other concerns about covering their faces. The manual adds that masks should not be required for students during recess or while swimming or running.

Staggering times • The health department suggests staggering any large events, such as recesses or lunches, so that groups don’t gather. It also recommends that schools consider having kids eat sack lunches in their classrooms to keep them in the same cohort. If possible, they recommend hybrid schedules that mix online and in person instruction so there are fewer kids in the classroom at one time.

Cleaning • Custodians are advised to clean and sanitize most high-touch surfaces, such as doorknobs and railings. They do not need to sanitize playgrounds, though, the guidance says.

They are also told to wait 24 hours before disinfecting a classroom where there was a positive COVID-19 case. That is to give time to let the virus die before any janitorial staff is exposed. Employees should wear masks and gloves, as well, to avoid direct contact.

Buses • Schools should consider installing a plexiglass wall around bus driver seats. (They can also be installed in classrooms for teachers.) The health department recommends that all windows be kept open during bus rides for proper ventilation.

Special classes • Some classes, such choir and band, are “inherently high-risk” for spreading the virus, the manual notes. Health officials say those should be held outdoors or with chairs at least 6 feet apart inside. Students should not face one another.

— Salt Lake Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this story.