Utah ends ‘modified quarantine,’ will not allow kids exposed to COVID-19 to attend school after all

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Backman Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.

After fierce pushback from teachers and doctors, the state has walked back its controversial guidelines for schools that would have allowed Utah students to come to class even after being directly exposed to COVID-19.

The move to abandon the so-called “modified quarantine” policy came Thursday — just one week after it was first announced by Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Department of Health. Now, students who come in close contact with the contagious virus will be expected to follow “standard quarantine practices,” staying home for 14 days. And all school staff members are asked to do the same.

“We’ve listened to the feedback,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, during a virtual news conference Thursday. “And we were willing to adjust and provide a more strict recommendation.”

Dunn had previously said that the “modified quarantine” rule was what essential workers in the state had already been doing. Like them, students (if their parents allowed) and teachers would have been able to come to class after exposure as long as they didn’t show symptoms and no one in their immediate household tested positive.

The guidance came as part of a 102-page manual for schools reopening this fall, as encouraged by the governor.

But the Utah Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state, immediately spoke against the policy, saying it did little to keep educators safe. Most teachers and substitutes are more vulnerable to serious complications from the virus than the kids they instruct because of their age or health conditions. “It doesn’t address our concerns,” said UEA President Heidi Matthews at the time.

She has called for all schools in the state to start online this month. And she’s been supported by teachers across the state, who have rallied for their safety. On the lawn of the Capitol and outside of district board meetings, they’ve held signs that ask: “When students and teachers get sick and die, will you be able to sleep at night?”

Doctors have jumped in, too. Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare, said it’s “pretty dangerous” to be opening classrooms as coronavirus cases remain high in Utah (with nearly 43,000 total positives as of Thursday).

And Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health, specifically called out the “modified quarantine” plan during an online discussion Tuesday, saying he feared it would lead to serious outbreaks and further spread of the coronavirus.

He added that it was “essentially no quarantine,” especially since children may not show symptoms even if they’re infected. He said that could mean an outbreak wouldn’t be detected until an older adult in the same circle contracted the disease.

Having individuals quarantine at home after they have been in close contact with a case of COVID-19, he added, is one of the best ways of containing transmission. “That’s the whole principle behind controlling this outbreak,” Swaminathan said.

The state had originally proposed the setup in the hopes that it would allow more students to take classes in person and focus on their education. It was “modified” because they could go to school, but not participate in sports or other activities outside the home — and they had to wear a mask.

Under the updated rules, that will no longer be allowed. Anyone who comes in close contact, defined as within 6 feet of an individual with the coronavirus for more than 15 minutes, should stay home for the full 14-day incubation period. It doesn’t matter where the exposure occurred.

Dunn said the change is “still consistent with good public health practice.” And the state’s online manual for schools has been updated. It now reads: “Even if the student never gets sick or tests negative, he or she must finish the 14-day quarantine.”

The state, Dunn added, will watch to see how that policy impacts “the flow of in-person education” and make further fixes, if needed.

It’s not clear yet how it could impact classes. In Georgia, for instance, more than 200 employees were already barred from working after an outbreak on the first week of school there.

In addition to that adjustment, the state said it also has heard from teachers who fear they don’t have adequate protective gear and it will now be providing that, as well. Herbert said during the news conference Thursday that Utah’s Unified Command team will create packages that include five N95 face masks and two plastic face shields for every educator and school staff member in the state.

“They’ll be available to all teachers, staff and bus drivers and janitors,” Herbert said, noting that no one has to purchase their own.

The packages will go to all 41 public school districts, along with all charter schools. In total, Herbert expects that 28,000 teachers and 16,000 staff members will receive them.

Herbert also clarified Thursday that he cannot order schools to reopen — though he strongly encourages it. The governor had first given direction in late May to districts to welcome students back this fall, saying that under his guidelines, there should be nothing to prevent that.

On Thursday, he added: “We are very eager to have our schools open back up.”

“I have talked in terms of hope that the schools will open,” Herbert continued. “I have talked in terms of expecting schools to open in some form or fashion.”

The decisions on how to do that, though, are left to individual school districts. Salt Lake City schools, for instance, will start the year online.

Schools were first shut down in March and classes were held remotely when the pandemic began here. There have been persistent equity issues since then in getting all students able to log on. Some have pushed for schools to reopen for that reason. The governor has joined in that call, but said all districts should also offer online courses for those not comfortable attending in person.

“Parents have a right to expect that their kids go back to a safe environment,” he said.

Herbert had met with education leaders last week, including the UEA, which called the meeting “a challenge.” There have been some reports that the governor was frustrated with the union, too, for calling for all classes to be online. But Thursday, he said, that wasn’t the case.

“It’s not true,” Herbert noted. “There’s no one more respected in our society than teachers.”

None of the state’s guidelines in the manual, Dunn and Herbert said, has to be observed by the school districts. They’re just recommendations. The only mandate is that most students and staff wear face masks.

Otherwise, schools are only encouraged to adjust 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.) They are asked to create their own policies, too, for hand washing and sanitation.

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 150 people). And then, the closure should be for two weeks. For a single classroom to go online, there would need to be at least three people with COVID-19.

Tami Pyfer, the governor’s educator adviser, added that she knows there’s been a lot of uncertainty surrounding education during the pandemic. But she encouraged parents and teachers to remain patient and united moving forward this fall.

“I worry that some of this feeling of unity has begun to unravel. We are hearing educators labeled as lazy and paranoid,” she said, referring to a Salt Lake City School Board member who suggested teaching online is “lazy.”

Pyfer continued: “Parents are being characterized as callous and selfish. And policy makers are being called uncaring. This is wrong.”