As Utah students returned to the classroom this fall, health experts predicted a much worse year for COVID-19 than the one before.
Unlike last year, there were not going to be any mask mandates for kids — state leaders had banned schools from instituting them on their own. And officials worried about new, more contagious variants of the virus starting to spread.
They were right.
There were nearly 8,300 more cases of COVID-19 among students this fall semester than there were at the same time last year. From the middle of August to the start of the holiday break this month, almost 24,000 K-12 students in Utah caught the virus.
That compares to roughly 15,700 for last fall.
“The narrative we used to have that this age group doesn’t get sick, doesn’t get hospitalized, it’s just not the case,” said Abi Collingwood, an analytic epidemiologist at the Utah Department of Health who has studied the school-associated cases in the state.
And the reality is, she added, there are even more cases among kids than just those that officials have been able to tie to specific schools.
State epidemiologists work to identify which school a student goes to so that teachers and classmates can be alerted to possible contact. But some parents refuse to talk to contact tracers, making the numbers appear lower than they really are.
So if the state looks just at the school-age population of kids 5 to 17 years old who have tested positive, there were actually 35,692 cases this fall — more than 10,000 above the number tied to specific schools.
That also surpasses the total for all school-associated cases for the entire last school year, which saw more than 32,000.
“The intervention that we had last year, with the masking, we just don’t have this year,” Collingwood added. “And cases have gone up as a result.”
Here is a breakdown of the numbers for COVID-19 cases among students and teachers — including at the state’s colleges and universities — in another pandemic school year.
More cases in younger kids
Collingwood said there has been an explosion of virus cases this fall in the youngest students — who have made up the majority of school cases this year.
Those 5- to 11-year-olds have gone several weeks where they have had the highest case rate of any age group in the state. That likely is because the vaccine for those students didn’t become available until November, the epidemiologist noted.
The school year started with a similar spike among 12- to 17-year-olds, for instance, in September. But then that tapered off, Collingwood said, as they became vaccinated, with immunizations for those ages being approved sooner.
Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsley said that has played out in schools there. He noted there has been a “huge influx” in cases with grades K-5.
“Some of the variants are really having an impact on our younger age group,” he said.
Not wearing masks has made a big difference, Collingwood noted, as the delta variant became more prominent with school starting and now as the omicron variant is spreading. Both variants have been more transmissible among unvaccinated kids.
“We know masks are very effective,” she said. “That and vaccines are our best interventions.”
Fewer cases in teachers
There have been more cases in schools overall — 27,982 as of Dec. 21 compared with 20,134 at the same time last year, combining both students and staff. But teachers are making up a smaller share.
Far fewer teachers have tested positive for COVID-19 this fall than last fall. For the first semester of the school year in 2020, 2,365 teachers had the virus. This semester, 1,895 have. That is a decrease of 470.
Collingwood said she believes that is because many teachers got the vaccine. “We’ve seen really good uptake in that population,” she noted.
Teachers were one of the first groups in the state to be eligible for the vaccine, starting early this year. Among educators in Salt Lake County, roughly 70% had opted to receive the immunization by February.
Of course, Collingwood notes, even with the vaccine it still is possible to get COVID. But the cases are generally milder and don’t often require hospitalization.
Not as bad as anticipated, but still bad
The Utah Department of Health did expect a worse year for COVID-19 in schools. Originally, though, they thought it would be much worse.
The department’s initial modeling estimated that there would be 39,000 cases in just the first 30 days of the school year. But a month in, there were only about a quarter of that many infections. The numbers for the end of September showed 9,957 reported cases among school-age children.
“We were way off,” the department said at the time.
Schools didn’t hit the anticipated total even after the first semester. But that does not mean it wasn’t still bad, Collingwood said. Nearly 28,000 kids and teachers still got sick this fall, with the school-associated cases.
Trouble with contact tracing
The state originally had a lot of difficulty with contact tracing in schools, Collingwood noted.
Some parents refused to talk to health officials when their child was sick. And some also refused to get their kids tested when they did show symptoms, not wanting them to miss school or extracurricular activities.
All of that skews the numbers.
However, now the state has been able to tie the public K-12 student database with its database for positive test results. That has helped the department, Collingwood said, alert schools when there are outbreaks. There is still a gap, but it is improving.
A spike after the break?
It is very likely that cases of the virus will spike when students return to the classroom again in January. Collingwood said the health department is bracing for that.
Students will be home with their families, traveling and visiting relatives. That means more spread of the virus, especially with the contagious omicron variant.
Collingwood believes students will pick up the virus around Christmas, and then it is only a week from there to when they are back in the classroom again. (They could also pick it up on New Year’s, which would be even closer to when they return to school.) People with the virus are supposed to stay home for at least two weeks while they are contagious.
The same thing happened last school year, too, she noted. “We are definitely expecting to see a spike after the holidays,” Collingwood added.
Horsley, with Granite School District, said that’s possible, too. But he also noted that the district did not see a spike this year after Thanksgiving. And with the vaccines and the extra time during the break for students to get them, he’s hoping that will help lower the threat.
What happened in Salt Lake County schools
Nicholas Rupp, the spokesperson for the Salt Lake County Health Department, said that’s good, but the numbers may also be off. He said that schools that do less testing tend to look better on paper.
Jordan, for instance, tested 4.3% of its students this fall. But it had the highest positivity rate of 12.9% among those kids. That usually means: “There’s a lot more infections, we’re just not testing as much and catching them,” Rupp said.
There can also be a delay in when cases show up in the district’s totals.
He expected, though, for cases to mostly increase with fewer students wearing masks this year with the ban on mandates. And in schools across the county, they did. There were 9,723 cases of COVID this fall compared with 8,893 last fall. That is an increase of a little less than 1,000.
Of the districts, Granite had the highest numbers of cases — at 2,653 — but it also has the highest student population at 68,000 kids. That means about 4% of its kids tested positive.
Meanwhile, Murray School District, which is the smallest of the five, had the highest rate. It had 319 of its 6,500 kids test positive for 4.9%.
Salt Lake City School District had the lowest at 3.3%.
Canyons spokesperson Jeff Haney said the district has been working hard to keep cases low. When a school starts to notice infections increasing, it will send out a letter to parents notifying them and encouraging them to send their students to school in masks.
With that early intervention, only one school in the district — Willow Springs Elementary in Draper — has hit the threshold this fall of 30 students testing positive that triggers a Test to Stay event. With that, those who test positive or refuse to test are sent home for two weeks. Those who test negative can continue learning in person.
Haney said the district has also doubled its efforts on keeping schools clean, to limit spread.
Why Salt Lake City School District is an outlier
Salt Lake City School District saw an increase of 521 cases among its students this year.
That jump, said spokesperson Yándary Chatwin, is due to most students returning in person this fall when all were remote for the start of the school year in 2020.
“That makes a big difference, obviously,” she said.
Even so, the district had the lowest percentage of its students test positive this fall, based on the health department’s numbers. That is likely attributed to the district being the only one of the five in the county to have a school mask mandate.
That was instituted this fall in an emergency order by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall after the Utah Legislature banned schools from creating their own mask mandates. That has been extended until at least spring break.
Utah colleges and universities see decreases
Every major college and university in Utah saw a decrease in COVID cases this fall. Most dropped to half as many cases as the year before.
The biggest school in the state, Utah Valley University — with a population of 41,000 students — went from 1,200 cases in fall 2020 to 560 this fall.
Similarly, Utah State University went from having 2,000 cases to 800.
That comes even as the schools were part of a statewide mask mandate last year and were also blocked from imposing that requirement themselves this year.
Scott Trotter, the spokesperson at UVU, credits it to many students and staff getting vaccinated. “It was a big concerted effort to make sure we lowered that number,” he said.
Utah State similarly credits vaccinations for its drop. So far, spokesperson Emilie Wheeler said, 85% of all USU students planning to take classes this spring have said they are fully vaccinated or plan to be before the semester starts. The school hosted several vaccine clinics, she said, to help get students the shot.
“Our students value their community and the traditional college experience and have shown that commitment by helping prevent COVID-19 from spreading,” she added.
UVU and USU are among five of the eight public colleges in the state that announced they would require students to get the coronavirus immunization before spring semester. The others participating in that are the University of Utah, Weber State University and Salt Lake Community College.
Those not requiring the vaccine are Snow College, Southern Utah University and Dixie State University. (Neither SUU nor Snow College responded to requests for their COVID case totals this fall or vaccine rates.)
Colleges make vaccine progress
The schools here requiring the vaccine before spring are seeing good progress. The highest rate at any public college is 84% at the University of Utah.
The lowest is at Dixie State University, with 60%, where COVID immunizations will not be mandated.
Looking at private schools, though, Westminster College in Salt Lake City jumps to the top. There, 93% of students have reported getting fully immunized.
The small college of about 3,000 was the first in Utah to announce it would be requiring the vaccine for students to enroll in in-person classes. It set a deadline for that even earlier than the others, in mid-October.
Similarly, it saw the smallest number of cases among its students and staff — just 48 total this fall, compared to 141 last year.
BYU is most improved
Another private college, Brigham Young University in Provo, made huge strides this fall.
It went from having the most COVID cases of any institution last fall — 3,500 — to 850 this semester. That is the largest decrease for any school.
Another way of looking at it: BYU was averaging 66 new virus cases per day last fall. This fall, it fell to eight.
“We appreciate the efforts of our campus community to follow the safety guidelines in place and are encouraged by the growing number of immunizations reported and a lower number of on-campus COVID-19 cases through fall semester 2021,” said school spokesperson, Carri Jenkins, in an email.
The school is not requiring vaccines — though it has asked students to self-report whether they got the shot, and 77% have said they have. But it did institute its own mask mandate this fall, which it could do as a private school.
Some students said that has been effective in classrooms, but more hit-and-miss in hallways or common areas like the library. Still, it seems to be working at reducing cases.