Health experts will share revised K-12 COVID-19 guidelines before school starts

Cases for K-12 students are 108 at per day. The number could quadruple by October, says Utah Department of Health

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Canyon View Elementary third grade students wear masks in class, in Cottonwood Heights. The Utah Department of Health is set to unveil new recommendations for K-12 students for next school year later this week.

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The Utah Department of Health will unveil new COVID-19 guidelines for Utah K-12 students during the upcoming school year this week, The Tribune has learned.

The proposed regulations do not include a mask mandate for unvaccinated students.

Legislators passed several measures that limit how public health and school officials can respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools cannot implement mask requirements for students. Lawmakers also lifted requirements for face coverings in April. State government cannot mandate the COVID-19 vaccination (the mandate does not apply to private businesses).

The guidelines were detailed in an email from House Speaker Brad Wilson sent to Republican lawmakers after a meeting between House and Senate leadership and the health department last week. The email makes it clear decisions about prevention and response to COVID-19 are up to local education agencies (LEAs) and Local Health Districts (LHDs).

“There is not a consensus among LEAs and/or LHDs on these guidelines: implementation/COVID-19 response will likely vary,” Wilson says in the email.

Among the primary recommendations:

  • Vaccines are encouraged for those who are eligible.

  • Masks are recommended (not required) for those who are not vaccinated.

  • Staying home and testing when there are signs of illness.

  • Physical distancing and contact tracing.

According to a Utah Department of Health presentation to legislative leadership, the average number of COVID-19 cases in K-12 students (5-18 years) is 108 per day. The trend in case numbers is currently increasing and could quadruple by October per the slide presentation provided to legislative leaders. The goal of the new guidelines is to minimize the burden on schools, limit mask use and provide choices to parents, per the slides.

The new directives are set to be presented to the Utah School Superintendents Association on Thursday.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, says indoor masking for students and teachers makes sense, especially with the more transmissible Delta variant running rampant.

“We do not want to go back to the cycle of ever-changing teaching and learning modalities (remote, in-person, hybrid, etc.) that was so hard on student learning and just an overwhelming and unsustainable for our teachers and educators,” Matthews said.

She added that lawmakers need to realize circumstances have changed dramatically from when they passed legislation making it more difficult for local authorities to take steps reacting to the ongoing pandemic.

“No one is excited about the continuing evolution of the pandemic, but we all care about kids and teachers. Personally, I just hate that something as simple as following the recommendations of the highest health authority in our country is political,” Matthews said.

Wilson stressed to members that the measures are voluntary and parents will decide whether students will adopt or abide by them.

The new guidelines come as the number of new COVID-19 cases in Utah continues to climb. The state reported 613 new infections Tuesday with 7 additional deaths.

House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, says he understands some are going to complain that the new guidance doesn’t go far enough. And others will worry it’s going too far.

“I’m hearing overwhelmingly that parents want to make the choice for their kids. They don’t want mandates. They want choices,” Schultz said.

How schools and local health departments respond to positive cases in schools could vary widely. Ultimately, local health departments have authority, but the health department recommends students who test positive for the coronavirus stay home for 10 days.

Students exposed to another student who tests positive will not automatically have to quarantine. Instead, local health departments will provide options for parents who will then decide what’s best. Recommended responses can range from having students stay home for up to 10 days, or remaining in the classroom but requiring them to wear a mask.

The new recommendations will be made public just days after the Centers for Disease Control reversed course and started recommending even fully vaccinated Americans start wearing masks indoors in areas of high COVID-19 transmission. The CDC is also recommending universal indoor masking for teachers, staff, and students in the nation’s K-12 schools.

Local health departments have the authority to require masks in schools or other areas if there’s a public health emergency. A law passed by the Legislature earlier this year requires a health department to inform the chief executive officer of the particular county within 24 hours of issuing the emergency order. That county’s governing body can end a public health emergency with a simple majority vote. The Legislature also has the power to end a public health emergency order that’s been in effect for more than 30 days.

“I hope they don’t do that,” Schultz said of the possibility of a new mask mandate from health officials.

“I’m not one of those who say masks don’t do anything. They work if you wear them properly, but how many kids do that?” Schultz asked.

A mask mandate could also come from Gov. Spencer Cox should he decide to declare a public health emergency. When asked about the new CDC guidelines, a spokesperson for Cox says his position on COVID-19 response has not changed.

“Gov. Cox continues to urge all eligible Utahns to get vaccinated. It’s the most effective way to protect against hospitalizations and death due to COVID-19. He also urges those who cannot or will not get vaccinated to wear masks to help protect themselves and others,” Jennifer Napier Pearce said in a text message.

Correction: An earlier, online version of this story attributed a quote from UEA President Heidi Matthews to Governor Spencer Cox’s spokesperson Jennifer Napier Pearce.