Editor’s Note: An update to this story can be found here.
At least 26 schools in Salt Lake County are reporting COVID-19 outbreaks this week, with some documenting their highest case counts on record since the pandemic started.
The spread comes less than two weeks after students and staff returned from winter break. And it marks the most schools to ever hit the outbreak threshold at once in Utah, stoking concern about how state-required testing will now be conducted among so many students.
“Staffing is certainly going to be a challenge when we have this many events happening simultaneously,” said Nicholas Rupp, a spokesperson for the Salt Lake County Health Department.
At the same time, teachers are calling out sick at record levels — nearly 1,000 in the county on Monday alone. Substitutes are wary of reporting to classrooms, creating massive shortages, so some school districts are begging parents to sign up to watch kids or sending in office staff. Others are combining classes, meaning more students squished together in one room.
And that’s for those who show up. Thousands of students are currently staying home, either sick or afraid to come to school.
The chaos of it all is unraveling schools as the more contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus continues to spread. School officials have no option to move classes completely online, after a ban on remote instruction by the Utah Legislature; this year, classrooms must be open at least four days a week to in-person learning.
Meanwhile, a number of parents are still vigorously pushing against mask requirements for children. One parent at Olympus High posted this week on Instagram that masking “makes your child silent,” offering to write exemptions for anyone who wanted one.
Most of the school year has gone without a school mask mandate, but when Salt Lake County health director Dr. Angela Dunn announced a countywide mandate Friday, it applied to K-12 classrooms starting this week.
“We are just facing huge challenges,” said Jeff Haney, the spokesperson for Canyons School District, at the south end of Salt Lake County. “It’s become a challenge to even run our schools.”
‘A negative impact on our schools’
All five high schools in Canyons are currently experiencing an outbreak: Alta, Brighton, Jordan, Hillcrest and Corner Canyon. Additionally, so are three middle schools: Draper Park, Eastmont and Indian Hills.
Of those, Alta High had the most cases as of Wednesday, with 103. Hillcrest High exploded from 30 cases on Monday to 71 by Wednesday.
The health department has advised that those tallies are likely significant undercounts, with many infections going untested and home tests not being counted in state totals.
In addition to the schools in Canyons, there are also six high schools and one middle school with outbreaks in Jordan School District, three high schools in Salt Lake City School District, four high schools in Granite School District and one high school in Murray School District. Two charter high schools and one private high school also are reporting outbreaks.
So far, some elementary schools have inched close to — but not surpassed — the state-designated outbreak threshold. That is set at 2% of a student body in a school with 1,500 kids, or, for those with fewer students, 30 confirmed cases of the virus. Ridgecrest Elementary in Canyons, for instance, has a student body of 513 kids and is at 29 cases.
The schools that have reached the threshold will be entering into the Test to Stay program required by law, which mandates that all students be tested for COVID-19 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 five days and then, when they return, must wear a mask for the following five days, under updated isolation guidelines. If they refuse to do that, they must stay home for 10 days.
Granite School District held its first Test to Stay event at Skyline High on Tuesday. Olympus High tested students on Wednesday, and Cottonwood High students will test on Thursday.
The Skyline testing found “well over 200 additional cases” of COVID-19 among students, amounting to roughly 10% of the student body, district spokesperson Ben Horsley said. The majority were asymptomatic.
Additionally, a few hundred students declined to test there, Horsley said. At Cottonwood High, there were 500 that refused, but that included students from the adjourning Academy of Math, Engineering and Science. At Skyline, Horsley said, he wasn’t sure on the exact number, but it was fewer there.
Two more Granite schools could also reach the threshold by the end of the week — Kearns High and Cyprus High, potentially pushing the total of high school outbreaks in the county to 28.
“I think what this shows is omicron is rampant within our communities, and it’s going to have a negative impact on our schools,” Horsley said.
More students declining tests
Schools are seeing more kids decline COVID-19 tests this year than previously, especially with the new guidelines for a shorter time out of class. According to Jordan School District spokesperson Sandy Riesgraf, students know they will only miss five days of class at most, and sometimes fewer if a Test to Stay event is held ahead of a weekend.
The district’s Herriman High, for instance, will test on Thursday. Students who decline to test will then miss class Thursday and Friday, have their regular weekend and then the holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. So they are only missing two days of school.
As more schools potentially reach the outbreak level, Horsley said he is worried that Test to Stay will become untenable — both with staffing and supplies.
Rupp, with the county health department said health officials are not currently worried about having enough tests for students, noting there is “sufficient supply” in the county’s warehouse earmarked for Test to Stay.
But he said staffing is tricky. Typically, the county health department has three testing teams. One stays at the department’s main testing center while two act as “roving teams,” dispatching to schools or workplaces with an outbreak, Rupp said.
In order to reach all 26 of the schools that are required to implement Test to Stay this week, the county is teaming up with the Utah Department of Health to split districts. For instance, the county will address the seven schools in Jordan School District that need to do Test to Stay. And the state will handle Canyons School District.
Officials also are having to host testing events on different days, which means students could be sitting in classrooms longer without knowing who has the virus.
Rupp stressed that this is why masking is important. The spike in cases after winter break was expected, he added, but spread is happening faster and further than estimations initially showed.
Haney at Canyons School District said it’s significantly disrupting staffing, too. On Monday, the district had 200 teachers call out sick. More than 75 of those slots were unable to be filled by a substitute. District staff had to be called in, and classrooms were doubled up.
In Jordan, 365 teachers missed work that day; in Granite, 260.
Additionally, bus drivers have called out. On Monday, eight routes didn’t get picked up in Canyons by fill-ins until 45 minutes after school started, Haney said.
Nutrition services there also are down 90 workers, in addition to unfilled roles. That’s limiting menus for what students are served for lunch.
“We are understaffed in most if not all of the major parts of our district,” Haney said.
Canyons and others have tried to reduce cases by canceling assemblies and other gatherings and increasing sanitation.
“We’re just doing everything we can to keep kids in school,” Murray School District spokesperson Doug Perry noted.
Outside of Salt Lake County, Alpine School District in neighboring Utah County saw four high schools and one junior high school hit the Test to Stay threshold as of Wednesday. The district announced that it is moving to remote-learning for two days — Friday, then Tuesday — to try to stem rising cases there. That still accords with the Legislature’s requirement of four in-person learning days each week.
The district said in a statement that officials felt they had no other options amid the recent case surge and “significant student and staff absenteeism.”
In Davis County, where cases are spreading as well, a Test to Stay event at Viewmont High sent more than 100 students home who tested positive for the virus. Four high schools in the district have hit the Test to Stay threshold.
Here’s a list of the schools in Salt Lake County that have experienced a COVID-19 outbreak this week or likely will, according to the health department:
Canyons School District
Corner Canyon High
Draper Park Middle
Indian Hills Middle
Ridgecrest Elementary (close, but not at outbreak threshold yet; expected this week)
Salt Lake District
Kearns High (close, but not at outbreak threshold yet; expected this week)
Cyprus High (close, but not at outbreak threshold yet; expected this week)
Mountain Ridge High
Copper Hills High
West Jordan High
West Hills Middle School
American Prep Academy- Draper 2 campus
Juan Diego High