Utah’s Riverton High School won’t close for two weeks — despite 17 cases of the coronavirus

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Riverton High, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.

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Despite 17 cases of the coronavirus, Riverton High will not shut down for two weeks — with school board members deciding to go against the guidance from the state health department on how best to control outbreaks.

The board of education for Jordan School District voted 6-1 on Wednesday night to close for two days to allow for deep cleaning of the building. Under the plan, students and staff will have Thursday off and will then do classes online Friday.

School will return as normal, fully in person, beginning Monday.

“I’m willing to see this through a little bit, to see if the cases increase or stay flat or actually decline,” said Bryce Dunford, the board president.

The board had called an emergency meeting Wednesday to decide how to proceed after the Salt Lake County Health Department reported that Riverton High had surpassed 15 active cases among its students and staff. That’s the threshold set by the state where it’s recommended — but not required — that a school close and switch to virtual learning for two weeks, to get past the incubation period of the virus.

Dunford acknowledged that advice and said the county health department agreed that the school should close. But after a two-hour discussion that ended at nearly 11 p.m., he and several board members said they felt the spread at Riverton High wasn’t severe enough to warrant that. The board president said taking action felt premature.

“I prefer we do nothing,” he added.

The decision comes after Canyons School District made a similar call last week. Corner Canyon High School in Draper had also surpassed 15 active cases, but the district decided not to close. The students there, though, are on hybrid schedule, mixing online and in-person classes, until Sept. 25.

The Jordan District board voted down an initial motion to follow that same model to reduce the number of students in the building at one time. Dunford was the deciding “no” on that.

Instead, the board members said they will keep an eye on the case counts and may take further action if there’s another spike.

For now, classes, as well as sports and extracurricular activities, can continue. And the board left it up to the administrators at Riverton High whether to go forward with the socially distanced Homecoming Week activities planned for this Friday and Saturday night. Those are slated to be held outside at the school’s stadium.

“We just need people to be aware of their surroundings and to take the precautions,” added board member Matthew Young, who also suggested possibly shortening the required 14-day quarantine period for those in the district.

Superintendent Anthony Godfrey said the 17 cases at Riverton High come from a mix of individuals who have contracted the disease elsewhere in the community — with a high transmission rate in the Riverton area — and from spread within the school itself. At least nine cases, he noted, are tied to infections at two extracurricular activities.

“The feeling of the health department is that there is spread of COVID-19 among students at the school at this time,” Godfrey said.

Of the cases, 16 are students and one is an employee. And most have been reported over the last three days.

As a result, 119 people at Riverton High have been told to quarantine based on possible exposure. Districtwide, for comparison, there are 678 total staff and students put under quarantine orders and 99 cases. That applies to anyone who was in close contact with an individual who tested positive — defined as within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes.

Godfrey said an entire class at the high school was told to quarantine after an activity where students moved around the room left them possibly exposed to one sick kid.

Several students and parents attended the board meeting — most wearing face masks — to speak out against shutting down. And they clapped and cheered when the board sided with them.

Dylan Gorringe, a student at Riverton High, said she was told two weeks ago that she would have to quarantine. She plays soccer and was told she couldn’t participate in games during that time. And trying to take her classes online didn’t go well, she said.

“It sucked,” she told the board. “I had no idea how to do any of my class work. It just felt like we weren’t ready to move online.”

She said, too, that students need the social aspects of school and clubs for their mental health. And younger students, she believes, aren’t at as high of a risk for getting serious complications from the virus.

While some studies have found that, many have concluded that children still carry the virus back to their older parents and grandparents. And teenagers are just as likely to carry COVID-19 as an adult. The state’s epidemiologist has pointed to that as a significant cause of the spread in Utah.

And on Wednesday, the state saw its single biggest daily jump in cases reported in schools, with 48 new infections for a total of 293 since classrooms reopened across the state beginning Aug. 13.

Emily Haverfield carried a sign to the meeting that said, “Stop teaching fear.” She said the 17 cases at Riverton High mean not even 1% of the population is infected. “Why are we thinking about shutting down the school for such a small amount of cases?” she asked.

Most students and staff, Haverfield argued, have been following the rules for masks and spacing. They shouldn’t be punished, she believes.

One mom also noted that her daughter is on the school’s drill team, but hasn’t been able to participate because of a quarantine order. Another said students are concealing it when they feel sick so they don’t get told to stay home. “The consequences are too high,” she added.

“The student body wants to be in school,” said Hope Thomas, the senior class president at Riverton High. “We want to be attending our events.”

State Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, also spoke in favor of the school staying open. He has a daughter at the Riverton High and represents the area.

After several board members expressed concern over whether the health department would step in and close the school if they didn’t, he responded: “The health department is not going to shut you down. I dare them.”

A spokesperson for the Salt Lake County Health Department, Gabe Moreno, confirmed the decision about whether to close remains with the district. “It’s up to them whether or not to take the recommendation,” he added.

Some board members also questioned what the legal liability for the district was if they didn’t close and if someone got seriously sick or died as a result. Dunford said he’s talked to Jordan District’s attorney and confirmed that it wouldn’t be considered “gross negligence.

As long as they’re not purposefully intending harm, he added, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Only one board member, Janice Voorhies, voted against Riverton High staying open as normal. As a former educator, she said, she’s worried about how the spread of COVID-19 will impact teachers. “How will this keep staff safe?” she asked.

The other members, though, said they’ve gotten hundreds of calls and emails from those who feel differently. And more than 1,300 were logged on to watch the livestream of the meeting.

Only one school in the state has chosen to temporarily close in accordance with the health guidelines. That was American Preparatory’s Draper 1 campus, which hit 15 cases on Sept. 1. Another charter, the Utah Military Academy at Camp Williams, voluntarily shut its doors after a smaller cluster of nine cases among staff.

Pleasant Grove High School in Alpine School District also decided to close for two days and then reopen with a mix of online and in-person classes after a handful of positive results there last month.