Will Utah see a surge of COVID-19 cases in schools?

“You will see transmission in schools,” one doctor warns.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kids line up inside Guadalupe School in Salt Lake City Oct. 27, 2021. Under new guidance, students in all Utah schools can return to class sooner after being exposed to or testing positive for the coronavirus.

Coronavirus cases are surging in Utah with the rise of the omicron variant just as school districts are relaxing their quarantine rules.

A new change means Utah teachers and students exposed to the virus or testing positive for it can return to school more quickly. School districts are adopting the new guidelines from the Utah Department of Health, but planning few updates to their prevention strategies.

That creates a “really tricky” situation, said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare.

“The majority of kids right now are not vaccinated,” Stenehjem said. “And we also know that school is an area where you will see transmission. That was proven earlier in the fall. Lots and lots of kids, most unmasked, poorly ventilated.”

“You will see transmission in schools with omicron,” he repeated in an interview.

Eleanor Sundwall, the mother of two girls in Granite School District, has already decided to keep her daughters at home, for now. “We decided to err on the side of caution because it’s just not safe to be someplace where it’s very crowded — like in a school,” Sundwall said.

Here is how the new guidance from UDOH, which follows advice from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will affect students and employees, and what doctors suggest parents and schools consider.

After testing positive

Regardless of their vaccination status, students and employees who test positive for COVID-19 must stay at home for five days after they were tested, even if they are not demonstrating symptoms, under the new guidance. After the five-day isolation period, students and employees can return to school if they have not had a fever for 24 hours and are not experiencing other symptoms.

Previously, UDOH had asked students who tested positive to isolate right away, and continue to do so until they were fever-free for 24 hours, their respiratory symptoms had improved for 24 hours, and it had been at least 10 days since they first got sick. If they did not have symptoms, they were instructed to isolate for 10 days from the day they were tested.

Exposed but vaccinated

For students exposed to someone with COVID-19, those who have received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine do not need to quarantine at home, under the new guidance. UDOH recommends that exposed but vaccinated students get tested five days after an exposure, and wear a mask for 10 days afterward.

Exposed and not fully vaccinated

Students who have not received both doses should stay home for five days, but can attend school after that if they do not demonstrate symptoms. Officials also recommend they follow the same steps as vaccinated students — getting tested five days after an exposure and wearing a mask for 10 days.

Under previous guidance, students exposed to the virus — but vaccinated or diagnosed with COVID-19 within the previous 90 days — also did not need to quarantine. If they and the person who had exposed them were both masked, they also did not need to quarantine. Students not included in those groups were asked to either quarantine at home for 10 days, or wear a mask at school for 10 days.

What schools are telling parents

Granite School District sent an email to parents on Saturday asking them to monitor their children for COVID-19 symptoms and keep them home if they feel sick. Students who demonstrate symptoms at school will stay in an isolation room until parents can pick their child up, under UDOH guidance.

Granite officials “highly encourage boosters for those who are eligible as a way to protect against serious illness,” and anticipate additional vaccination clinics to be scheduled as soon as possible, the email said.

There are tens of thousands of high quality masks in stock for the district, according to the email, and parents can request a KN95 mask for their children from their principal, though officials noted under state law, they cannot require students to wear a mask.

Granite School District offers free, walk-in COVID-19 testing at Jefferson Junior High between 2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Officials with Jordan School District also reported that there are plenty of high quality masks available for students, but not many people are asking for them.

Parents of Canyons School District students received an email after 9 p.m. Sunday advising them of the updated quarantine and isolation guidelines after winter break. Canyons officials encouraged students and employees to wear a mask around others for five days after isolating at home if they test positive for COVID-19. The school district also recommends people get tested before returning to school.

While it will be up to parents to decide whether they send their children to school or to wear masks, Stenehjem urged schools to take stronger steps to prevent transmission — even if that means students end up wearing their winter coats inside.

“I really hope that schools will double down their efforts on preventing transmission in their classrooms,” he said. “And that would include having all kids mask, really focusing on ventilation, opening up some windows, and having kids wear jackets if it’s chilly inside with the windows open.”

Fall COVID-19 case counts in Utah schools soared in 2021, compared with 2020. 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 in December, almost 24,000 K-12 students in Utah caught the virus. That compares to roughly 15,700 for last fall.

Using masks in schools

Students and employees should wear masks in school, said Dr. Emily Spivak, an infectious diseases physician with University of Utah Health. But Spivak noted that Salt Lake City School District has been the only Salt Lake County district requiring that.

Try to keep your kids in school if you can, Spivak said, but make sure they are wearing well-fitting, multiple-layer masks.

The better mask you can get for your kid, “the better that kid’s going to be protected,” added Dr. Leisha Nolen, state epidemiologist at the Utah Department of Health. “It’s always really difficult with little kids because their faces are such different sizes and shape. So you might need to go out and try a few different masks to see which one fits your child the best.”

Parents know “the culture of their school” and whether masks are being used, Spivak said. So, they are going to have to gauge decisions for their children themselves.

If parents feel comfortable, they can reach out to other parents in their child’s classroom to see if they are willing to send their kids with masks, too. That especially can be helpful in younger grades, where children are in one classroom most of the day, Spivak added.

If children are eligible for the vaccine and not received it, “now, as we’ve been saying, is the time,” Spivak said.

The guidance for school employees

School employees who are exposed to someone who has COVID-19 also do not have to quarantine if they received a booster dose or a second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine in the last six months, according to UDOH. They should still wear a mask for 10 days after their exposure and get tested five days after being exposed, to ensure they are not spreading the virus to others, UDOH said. The same rules apply for employees who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the last two months.

Unvaccinated employees and those who have not received their second Pfizer or Moderna dose in the last six months can leave their house five days after they were exposed, but should wear a mask in public for another five days. They should also get tested five days after exposure, UDOH said.

Concerns from a parent

Sundwall said she is frustrated with the new guidelines because they feel contradictory. Policymakers did not implement a requirement for students to wear masks when the CDC recommended wearing them indoors, but state health officials are now adopting the agency’s guidance on isolation and quarantine periods, she pointed out.

“The school districts keep saying, ’The schools are using all the tools available to them.’ They’re recommending masking or recommending vaccinations or recommending hand washing. But people aren’t doing these things. And people won’t do these things. Because there are no mandates,” Sundwall said.

Utah lawmakers blocked school districts from imposing mask mandates, instead setting up a process with county officials that few districts have attempted to use. Salt Lake City schools are covered by a mandate from Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

Sundwall is a member of the Concerned Coalition, a group of parents and teachers advocating for more public health measures in schools. Her children are enrolled in Chinese-speaking dual-immersion programs that aren’t offered in an online format. She wanted them to return in person to have social experiences with their friends after they were vaccinated.

But during this surge, her daughters will be doing schoolwork at home. “There’s no possibility, really, of legitimate social distancing [in class],” Sundwall said. “It’s not even 3 feet between the students.”

— Tribune reporters Scott D. Pierce and Becky Jacobs contributed to this story.