With students and teachers across Utah back in classrooms, COVID-19 cases are rising. Of the state’s 1,218 new positive tests reported Tuesday, 270 were among kids in grades K-12.
But public health measures to limit the spread are limited. This year, the Utah Legislature banned school districts from creating any requirements for masks. Instead, any face covering mandates in schools must come as a recommendation from a county health department, with the local county governing body having the authority to repeal them.
As the more contagious delta variant spreads, Gov. Spencer Cox has said that measure is outdated and doesn’t allow districts to respond nimbly enough. But it’s not clear yet what he can do about it.
Here’s a look at the current policies for schools and students, and a guide for parents to navigate different scenarios.
If a kid or teacher at our school gets sick, but they’re not in my kid’s classroom, is my family told about that?
This is up to each school district. Some have created online dashboards to inform parents of cases in specific schools. That’s what Granite School District in Salt Lake County does, including staff cases, too. And Canyons School District does, too.
Others are not providing that level of information. Grand County School District, for instance, which is centered around Moab, does not alert parents about cases in an individual school.
The Utah Department of Health (UDOH), though, will be updating its statewide COVID-19 dashboard to provide that data about case counts in every school in Utah — to fill in where districts don’t, Cox said at Tuesday’s COVID-19 briefing.
The dashboard will include a color-coded chart, Cox said. Green will designate a school with less than 1% of its population with an active case of COVID-19, yellow for schools with 1% to 2% of the population with COVID-19, and red for schools where more than 2% of the population has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
A spokesperson for UDOH said the department does not know yet when that color coding will be available on the dashboard.
If a kid or teacher in my child’s classroom gets sick, but they were not close to my kid, will I get notified about that?
This also depends on the district, but most school districts in Utah are alerting parents if there’s a case in their kid’s classroom — whether or not they had close contact with the individual who has COVID-19.
Grand County School District Superintendent Taryn Kay said any time someone in a classroom tests positive, all parents are alerted about it. The same occurs there with a teacher.
If a student seated close to my kid gets sick, how will I be notified and how soon? And what will I be asked to do?
Parents are usually notified of their kid’s exposure by a contact tracer, who may work for a health department or a school district (as Canyons and Granite do). Superintendent Kay in Grand said this alert comes within the same school day as the exposure is confirmed.
Parents can usually sign up through their school on how they’d like to receive communication, including by phone or email.
Close exposure is generally considered being closer than 6 feet to a person who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or longer in a 24-hour period while they were infectious.
In Salt Lake County, schools provide the county health department with a list of people who were near the person who tested positive. This may include those who had close exposure, or the list could include all the students and teachers within the classroom or group. It’s up to the school, based on the situation.
From there, it’s like a flow chart, said Salt Lake County Health Department spokesperson Nicholas Rupp.
If the person exposed was vaccinated or has had COVID-19 within the last 90 days, then they don’t have to take any action.
If the person exposed was wearing a mask, as well as the person who exposed them, they also don’t have to quarantine or take other precautions. This can sometimes be hard to prove, though.
(Breakthrough cases do occur among vaccinated people, and outside the school setting, health officials recommend that vaccinated or masked people who have been exposed to the virus get tested, Rupp said.)
After the health department or other contact tracers factor those two categories of students out, the department provides a letter to schools with the names of the people who must take some kind of preventive action after the exposure to limit spread. And the schools send the letter to just those students and their families.
This letter says the student has two options from that point: Either they can quarantine at home for 10 days, or they can wear a mask at school for 10 days.
“With either choice, you have the option to get tested on day seven,” the letter states. (The test must be a PCR or antigen test, not an antibody test.) If the student tests negative and does not have symptoms, he or she can return to school, no longer required to wear a mask.
Those who chose to quarantine instead “should not leave home for any reason,” according to the county health department, except if your health care provider tells you to get in-person care.
Some school districts, like Grand, are recommending testing any time a student is exposed. And the district and others, including Canyons, provide it for free.
Schools can require this process only when they are aware of an exposure at school — not anywhere else, such as if a student is exposed to the virus at home.
If my kid gets sick with COVID-19, what am I asked to do?
“You should isolate right away if you test positive for COVID-19, even if you are fully vaccinated,” according to UDOH.
Continue to isolate until you are fever-free for 24 hours, your respiratory symptoms have improved for 24 hours and it has been at least 10 days since you first got sick. If you did not have symptoms, you should isolate for 10 days from the day you were tested, according to UDOH.
“Do not attend school or participate in extracurricular activities if you have symptoms of COVID-19” or if you have tested positive, according to UDOH.
When schools become aware that a student has tested positive, they can enforce the quarantine requirements.
Does the district or school get alerted to positive test results of students? Or is it an honor system based on parent reports?
Salt Lake County Health Department and schools in the area will notify each other about students and staff who test positive, said spokesperson Rupp, to try to make the records as complete as possible.
And most of the testing at Grand County School District is done by the district, so it has its own record.
But “if the child is tested elsewhere in Moab, all testers report to the same website so we can easily check a child’s status,” Kay said.
So districts are not relying on parents to report test results, but they are counting on parents to get their kids tested when needed. And, if parents do alert their schools, the process for contact tracing may be quicker.
If my kid, or another kid, is masked, does that change the response to the above situations?
It’s a little complicated.
UDOH strongly recommends that students wear a face covering. And it suggests that if a kid was not wearing one when they were exposed to the virus that they quarantine at home. But that’s not a formal requirement.
“The fact that there’s no mask mandate changed everything from last year,” said UDOH spokesperson Charla Haley.
Instead, if a student is exposed to COVID-19 when they weren’t wearing a mask and they don’t want to quarantine, they just need to wear a mask at school for the next 10 days (or seven days, if they test negative at that point). That’s as long as they do not have symptoms.
If the student who was exposed was wearing a mask but the person who exposed them wasn’t, then they should mask up for 10 days.
And if they were wearing a mask and so was the person who exposed them, then they don’t have to take any action. They don’t have to quarantine, and they don’t have to wear a mask for 10 days. (The school can usually say whether or not the person who exposed them was wearing a mask.)
The state says this is an effort to keep more students in schools in-person and to be mindful of families that may not be able to have a parent home with a quarantined child.
In most cases of exposure, regardless of mask wearing, kids are pretty much able to keep going to school as long as they don’t test positive or show symptoms.
If my child is vaccinated, does that change anything?
Yes. A student doesn’t have to quarantine if it has been two weeks since their final shot, even if they have been exposed to someone who tests positive — regardless of masking.
The shots are currently available for those age 12 and older.
Health officials strongly recommend that if your child is eligible that they get vaccinated. Research shows that those who have gotten the shot are also less likely to get severely ill from the virus.
How can I get the masks that the state is providing to students this school year?
The state has promised to provide KN95 masks — which protect better than cloth masks — to all elementary students this wear.
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said Tuesday that 1.2 million masks have already been sent to schools across the state, and another 750,000 are on the way.
To get one, Ben Horsley, spokesperson for Granite School District, recommends contacting your child’s school directly. UDOH said not to contact state health officials.
What school districts currently have mandates in place for masks?
The only district that has successfully gone through the approved legislative process is Grand County School District, which started with a 30-day mask mandate for K-6 students. Summit County has said it will require masks for kids in elementary classrooms if infection rates get above 2%.
The Salt Lake County Health Department had previously tried to issue a mask requirement for schools countywide. But that order, issued by its health director, Dr. Angela Dunn, was voted down earlier this month by the County Council on party lines, with Republicans against it and many parents shouting in favor of personal freedom.
Since then, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has put into place an emergency order for masks in city schools for students K-12. It’s unclear, though, if that will be allowed to stand; some lawmakers have already discussed challenging her. The Legislature also gave itself the authority to veto any county’s mask mandate for schools.
How do districts currently use Test to Stay?
The Test to Stay program is still in place for this school year, according to UDOH. Senate Bill 107, which passed during the last legislative session, requires schools to hold a Test to Stay event when:
• Schools with 1,500 or more students have 2% of their students test positive for COVID-19 within the previous 14 days.
• Schools with fewer than 1,500 students have 30 students test positive for COVID-19 within the previous 14 days.
“When a school meets the Test to Stay thresholds, the school districts, in consultation with the local health department, will work together to offer testing to all students,” according to UDOH. “…School staff are not required to participate but can do so if they choose.”
The school must get written permission from a student’s parent or guardian in order to test them.
During Test to Stay, a student who tests positive must isolate at home, even if they “are fully vaccinated,” according to UDOH. “They may return to in-person learning after they are done with their isolation period.”
A student who tests negative can continue in-person learning, if they have no symptoms of COVID-19.
Those who decline to test must quarantine at home for 10 days.
“While we wholeheartedly believe in parent choice,” said Lt. Gov. Henderson at the governor’s briefing Tuesday, “we also believe that choices have consequences. … If a parent chooses not to let their child be tested for COVID-19 if that 2% threshold has been passed in their school, that parent is also choosing remote learning for their child.”
Henderson and Cox suggested tightening the thresholds Tuesday under Test to Stay, but that has not been approved yet.
Does the district have any threshold for schools to close and for students to move to virtual learning?
Under state law — with the Test to Stay Bill, SB107 — “schools cannot close,” according to Horsley, spokesperson for Granite School District.
That law requires all schools in Utah “to have at least four days of in-person instruction per week,” according to UDOH.
Grand County School District also notes that Test to Stay is meant to prevent a school from closing. Last year, if a certain percentage of kids did not participate, the school would shut down. That no longer applies.
Do districts have any COVID-19 testing requirements for teachers, staff or students?
“Under state law, we cannot require testing except under Test to Stay and the guidelines under SB107,” according to Horsley.
And, even with Test to Stay, a parent has to consent to their student being tested. If they don’t, that student is required to stay home.
— Salt Lake Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this report.