Under new state guidelines for managing coronavirus risks in schools, fewer Utah students will have to quarantine and schools may be able to keep holding classes in person during outbreaks.
“We’ve perhaps been quarantining too many” students, said Rich Saunders, interim director of the Utah Department of Health, at a Thursday news conference where he explained upcoming changes to public health orders for schools.
Health officials reached that conclusion in light of mounting evidence that schools are relatively low-risk environments for the virus to spread, Saunders said.
Gov. Gary Herbert first announced the easing of quarantining guidelines Thursday during his monthly televised news conference, which airs on PBS Utah.
Testing will play a big role in the new plan for schools, with rapid antigen tests being offered to all students at any school that tallies enough cases to be shut down.
Instead of closing its doors, the school can remain open for students and employees who test negative; those who test positive or refuse to be tested will have to stay home.
“Ongoing rapid testing influences safer behavior among those who anticipate being tested,” Saunders said.
And the number of cases that trigger either closure or the “test to stay” option will rise for some schools; instead of a 15-case threshold statewide, schools with more than 1,500 students and employees may remain open until 1% of that population is diagnosed.
That should allow more schools to offer continuous, in-person classes, “opposed to oscillating between virtual and in-person” instruction, Saunders said.
Herbert also said the state will no longer instruct public schools to quarantine students just because they’ve been in close contact with a classmate who tests positive for COVID-19. Going forward, these students — unless they test positive themselves — won’t have to quarantine if everyone was wearing face coverings at the time of their interaction.
“If they have a mask on, they’ll be allowed to stay in school,” Herbert said during the briefing on PBS Utah.
Of those who have quarantined due to exposure at school, Herbert said, only 1% to 2% have tested positive.
“We would understand that some teachers would be concerned about this change,” Herbert said in the later news conference Thursday. “The good news is that the data shows they are in a low-risk environment at school.”
Herbert said he hopes the change to quarantine rules will lessen the disruption for parents and schools, which will still be required to do contact tracing and make sure students and teachers are wearing masks.
“I know there might be some concerns for some of the teachers, are they going to be increasing their risk?” he said. “But the data shows that that’s not really going to increase risk. ... I hope that the teachers will take heart in knowing that we are arranging for them to be tested anytime that they like to.”
And teachers are next in line after health care providers to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Utah, the governor added. Health care workers got Utah’s first doses of the vaccine earlier this week, and Herbert said he hopes inoculations for teachers will begin in the middle of January.
However, the Utah Education Association (UEA) expressed concern at the change, indicating that its representatives told Herbert earlier this month that there’s not enough data to support the shift and that its safety impacts aren’t known.
“We are disappointed the governor and health officials have elected to ease school quarantine and contact tracing guidelines in the midst of growing community COVID-19 cases and deaths,” UEA President Heidi Matthews said in a prepared statement. “If school districts adopt these recommendations, it places educators at added risk and adds to the anxiety and stress our school employees already face.”
The changes are only recommendations, Matthews added, and the association hopes local school boards will work with educators and health officials to address their needs.
Meanwhile, the state will continue its “test to play” protocols for students athletes. In schools where those protocols were in place, Saunders said, the positivity rate for tests was a paltry 1.6% The “test to play” protocols will be offered for sports and other extracurricular activities, Saunders said.
All college students will be tested within 10 days of returning to campus after winter break, Saunders said.
“It will help students to watch their behavior during the Christmas break,” he said. State officials are encouraging college administrators to limit gatherings between students as much as possible “until we’re able to complete the 10-day testing blitz,” Saunders said.
The goal, he said, is “to make sure we don’t reproduce what happened in late August and September,” when case numbers ballooned.
Saunders also noted at the news conference that Rich County, in far northern Utah, will move from the low transmission level to the high level, based on transmission rates over the last two weeks. The shift means 26 counties in Utah are the high level, and three are in the low level.
‘Kind of a bittersweet day’
At the earlier briefing that aired on PBS Utah, Herbert also spoke about signing a compact this week that recognized the problem of racism and committing to financial investments and public policy changes to eliminate disparities in the state.
The governor said many people have had their “conscience kind of pricked” over the past year by the killing of George Floyd — a Black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police — and the ensuing protests demanding justice. And he said he thinks the state can do better on the issue of racial equity.
“In talking to some of our African-America brothers and sisters, they’re concerned that, does my child walk down the street and are they afraid when the police approach them?” Herbert said. “Shouldn’t be that way.”
The governor called for additional resources and training for police, but he also argued that people are at times too critical when questioning the split-second second decisions that officers have to make.
Herbert also reflected on his 11-plus years in office during the news conference, which was the final televised PBS Utah address of his term. “It’s kind of a bittersweet day for me,” he acknowledged.
The outgoing governor took office in 2009 and is currently the nation’s longest-serving governor. He will hand over the title to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox in early January.
Herbert said he hopes he’ll be remembered not only for his conservative policies but for his tone of moderation and civility. He trusts that his successor, Cox, will continue building upon the successes of his administration.
“I’m sure he’ll amplify what we’ve done,” he said. “And take the state to new heights.”