14 more Utah schools shift online this week, including the first elementary to have an outbreak

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teacher Pinyi Yao welcomes his students on their first day of the school year at Oquirrh Hills Middle School on August 20, 2019 in Riverton. The school will move online for two weeks starting Nov. 19, 2020, because of COVID-19.

An additional 14 Utah schools have shifted online so far this week, coming after another 25 last week as the pandemic surges across the state and spreads into more classrooms.

Wednesday also marked the highest single-day increase of cases for K-12 schools in Utah with an additional 598. The previous record was 378 from last Friday. There have now been nearly 11,000 infections tied to students and teachers since August. And, in total, 77 Utah schools have temporarily shut their doors due to outbreaks since reopening this fall.

The biggest share of the new school closures came from Jordan District, where the board of education voted to temporarily move five schools to remote learning Wednesday night. The district has been particularly hard hit by the virus and closed 14 schools last week, many facing a second or third outbreak.

“The point of moving to virtual is to slow the spread,” stressed board member Jen Atwood during the virtual meeting.

Overall, 21 of the district’s 57 traditional schools have moved online, including now 11 of its 12 middle schools and all six high schools. That is the most closures of any district in the state. It also has the highest total number of infections – at 1,695 — of the districts in Salt Lake County that have reopened in person. That’s an increase of nearly 500 more cases in Jordan District from last week.

But Wednesday was the first time that the board chose to close elementary schools, which have so far avoided the high transmission rates that have overwhelmed middle and high schools. Three elementaries — Butterfield Canyon, Foothills and Westvale — will move to virtual learning.

Butterfield Canyon appears to be the first elementary in the state to hit the 15-person outbreak threshold that the state health department recommends trigger a two-week closure. As of Wednesday, there were 14 infections there. The board said a few more would be reported in Thursday’s numbers, putting it over the edge.

Previously, only two elementary schools have closed in the state, both in Piute County School District in central Utah. But they did so as a precaution without having 15 cases.

Pediatricians in the state warned this week that while elementary-age children may not see high numbers of cases, there have recently been more kids with severe illness from the virus landing in the hospital.

As such, both Foothills and Westvale in Jordan District are moving online as a safety measure, the board voted. Neither has hit the 15-case threshold. And Westvale, accordingly, will only be shut down for Monday and Tuesday next week as a small reset before Thanksgiving Break.

All of the others will close for the full two weeks, with the last in-person day on Thursday before going remote through Dec. 4.

The bigger problem is that absentee and quarantine rates at the elementaries are so high that it’s too difficult to continue holding in-person classes. At Westvale, for instance, there are seven positive cases of the virus. That has led to 94 students and staff being quarantined. And an additional 20 kids were absent Wednesday. With that, roughly one-third of the school was out.

“There comes a tipping point with absenteeism and quarantines,” said board member Matthew Young. “It just absolutely hits a tipping point.”

Westvale is also dealing with several teachers and administrators being out. The two middle schools, likewise, hadn’t hit 15 cases, but both Oquirrh Hills and Joel P. Jensen were close enough and the board voted to close them, too.

Jordan District briefly considered moving all of its schools to online instruction through Thanksgiving, but the measure did not pass.

Additionally, this week Fremont High in Weber School District was closed, as well as Legacy Junior High and Syracuse Junior High in nearby Davis School District. North Summit High and Morgan High also moved online.

Meanwhile, Tooele High, Corner Canyon High, Brighton High and Farmington High all had their second outbreaks and shifted to virtual instruction.