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Utah parents are refusing to talk to health officials, so COVID-19 cases in schools are undercounted, the state says

Utah Department of Health launches a color-coded dashboard, but it warns its data likely doesn’t reflect real case totals.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students begin the first day of school at Granger High School in West Valley City on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. The state has updated its dashboard for cases in schools, but it says many families are making it hard to track spread because they refuse to talk to the health department.

A new color-coded dashboard from the state now lets parents see when a Utah school is at or nearing the designated level for a COVID-19 outbreak — but experts warn the numbers are likely undercounts because many parents are refusing to talk to health officials when their kids test positive.

Not knowing the actual number of cases has made it a serious challenge to respond quickly with efforts to limit spread in the classroom, the Utah Department of Health said Tuesday.

“School-associated cases are identified through interviews with cases by the local health departments, and only school-associated cases that have been linked to a school are displayed” on the dashboard, the department says on the site.

It adds, though, that “people who refuse or are unable to be interviewed are not associated with schools, so these data are an underestimate of the true burden of COVID-19 in schools.”

Currently, the state says it has only been able to link 51% of the cases among 5- to 17-year-olds to a school. That means roughly half of the positive cases in school-age children in Utah do not appear on the statewide school dashboard.

And once a case is tied to a school, districts have been experiencing delays in notifying families, too, with some parents reporting that that they haven’t learned that their child was exposed and needed to quarantine until a few days before the quarantine period would end.

[Read more: Utah kids aren’t being notified of COVID-19 exposure until it’s almost too late to quarantine]

Without accurate information about the number of cases, schools continue operating like normal, the state’s epidemiologist, Dr. Leisha Nolen said Tuesday, when they should be initiating testing of all students; any delay in that is dangerous and can lead to more spread.

The number of school cases currently reported by the state is actually closer to double what the dashboard shows.

It notes that there have been 4,660 cases tied to schools so far this fall, when most K-12 classrooms don’t have mask requirements. (School districts have been prohibited from creating their own mandates for face coverings by the Utah Legislature.) Since that is only about half of the cases among school-age kids, the real number is likely closer to more than 8,000 cases.

The state is urging more parents to participate in interviews with their local health departments so it can accurately track cases in schools.

The data that the state does have can be found at coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts/#schools.

“We want to do all we can to keep students in school while keeping them as safe as possible,” said Nolen.

With the color-coded system, the state marks schools as “red” when they have hit the threshold for an outbreak. That’s more than 30 cases in a school with fewer than 1,500 students or 2% of the student body in a school with more than 1,500, in a 14-day period.

The dashboard is showing two schools in that zone: Syracuse Elementary and Antelope Elementary, both in Davis School District.

Syracuse Elementary was the first school in the state to hit the outbreak designation this year and it has started the Test to Stay protocol required by the Legislature. With that, all students are tested for the coronavirus with parent permission.

Those who test negative can continue attending class in person. Those who test positive or refuse to test must stay home for online education for two weeks.

The spokesman for Davis School District said the district’s records are not clear yet on Antelope Elementary and whether it will also be doing a Test to Stay event.

American Preparatory Academy’s Draper 2 campus also reported hitting 30 cases on Monday; that is not reflected on the state’s dashboard, though it has also started testing all students.

The Utah Department of Health notes that its data reporting can lag, and that parents should also look at their individual district or charter’s dashboard for more up-to-date information. It defers to districts on implementing Test to Stay, the site says.

The time line for notifications begins with the time it takes for a parent to notice symptoms, get their child tested and get the results. The district can learn of a positive result from a parent or the county health department. After that, the district has to determine everyone the kid may have exposed and get notifications out.

Those same delays existed last school year but appear to be exacerbated this year as cases climb even higher. In the 2020-2021 school year, Utah classrooms were not at the levels they are now until midway through October.

Currently, the state’s new color-coded dashboard shows 14 schools in the “yellow” zone. That includes APA in Draper. The category is used for schools that are more than halfway to hitting an outbreak.

The next category is “green” for schools that are less than halfway to an outbreak. Schools with fewer than five active cases are not identified as having spread.

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