Utah parents should send their kids back to school in a mask and get them vaccinated — if they’re old enough — to help protect them from getting the coronavirus that will surely spread in classrooms this fall, according to the state Department of Health.
The direction came out Monday as part of a list of recommendations from the department for students who will be attending K-12 in person in the coming weeks.
Nothing in the 10 provided guidelines is unexpected. And nothing is mandated. That’s because Utah lawmakers have banned public schools from requiring students to wear masks this year. And those who are under the age of 12 cannot yet get the vaccine.
So, instead, the Utah Department of Health is only advising that kids continue to put on face coverings while indoors and prioritize immunization where possible. It’s all they can do.
“I strongly encourage parents to consider having their children wear masks in school because Utah is experiencing high transmission levels of COVID-19,” said Dr. Leisha Nolen, the state epidemiologist, in a statement. “Many of our school-aged children are unable to be vaccinated at this time and masks are the next best protection.”
Physicians across the state have warned that the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus is likely to spread in schools this fall, especially with the limitations that state leaders have put on one of the most well-tested safeguards: masks. Many say they’re frustrated but feel their hands are tied.
Doctors say that returning in-person last year worked in Utah largely because of the precautions that were mandated. Without them, this fall feels more dangerous, said Dr. Adam Hersh, who specializes in pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health.
The recommendations from the health department put masking — including for those immunized and not — and vaccines at the top of the list. The remaining items are:
• Encouraging students and staff to isolate if they test positive for COVID-19.
• Having school districts create a quarantine policy for when classroom exposure does occur.
• Asking people to get tested for COVID-19 if they feel unwell.
• Advising individuals to stay home when they’re sick, even if it’s not the coronavirus.
• Suggesting that schools still enforce physical distancing and cohorting — which means keeping smaller groups of students together each day — where possible.
• Improving or increasing indoor ventilation.
• Having everyone practice healthy hygiene, like regularly washing their hands.
• Cleaning and disinfection school spaces, particularly those touched often.
A detailed breakdown of those suggestions can be found at coronavirus.utah.gov/education. But most of the implementation and decisions around responding to the virus will be left to individual school districts.
Dr. Michelle Hofmann, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, says students and schools should take a “layered prevention approach,” using several of the strategies to stay safe.
“Doing so can help minimize the disruptions of COVID-19 on schools while maximizing opportunities for children to participate in in-person learning and extracurricular activities,” she said.
Without that, the state’s website warns: “Children can and do get COVID-19 and are at risk for severe illness from the virus. … Everyone must help to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our schools.”
The department says the recommendations were developed with input from school administrators, health officials, the Utah teachers unions, parents, lawmakers and the governor’s office. And they include a list of the government action on the issue “that will impact the 2021-2022 school year.”
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in a statement that he appreciated the guidelines and felt they balanced protection with personal responsibility.
" I certainly share the department’s goal of keeping students in the classroom and minimizing potential disruptions to student learning throughout the school year,” he said.
But he did leave an opening for future action on face masks, noting that: “The governor and county elected officials — in conjunction with local health departments — retain the flexibility to address new developments with the virus, including instating mask usage.”
Some parents, including those with family members who are vulnerable to serious infection, have expressed frustration and fear over the coming school year. They want more than just recommendations.
Even with vaccine availability for those over age 12, roughly only 40% of teens in the state have gotten the shot. That’s well below the 70% or 80% needed for herd immunity, which would protect, for example, immunocompromised students.
And those in elementary school students aren’t eligible yet, so they’ll be filled with unvaccinated children.
What to do about it is largely left up to personal choice.