Gov. Gary Herbert announced some changes to K-12 schools in his weekly update on the novel coronavirus on Thursday, though officials said it’s likely only one will affect Cache Valley schools.
When there are low-risk school exposures, such as close contact with an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19 but everyone was wearing a mask, the 10-day quarantine will no longer be required.
“We wanted to have a mask-on-mask protocol from the beginning of school, where those students who wore a mask were not asked to quarantine after exposure because we felt like it gave an incentive for kids to be in their masks,” said Tim Smith, a spokesperson for Cache County School District. “What we didn’t have at the time is data to show that that would be effective at reducing transmission.”
Rich Saunders, the director of the Utah Department of Health, said of the thousands and thousands of students who were tested under the Low Risk Test to Return guidelines seven days after a mask-on-mask exposure at school, 1.6% of the results were asymptomatic positives.
When the additional testing for athletics was opened up, the positivity in the state jumped to about 3% as all football players were tested prior to playoffs. In Cache County School District, the positivity rate has stayed around 1.2%. Other activities and clubs, such as musicals and off-season sports in conditioning, will also be tested weekly under the new guidelines.
Saunders added that students going on and off quarantine due to exposure is disruptive, and Smith said it’s one of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic on teachers.
“Some students will engage with the teacher effectively during the quarantine,” Smith said. “Others won’t, and that makes it very difficult for teachers to try to teach their normal class, and then to try to go back and catch up the kids who are all on different levels because of quarantines.”
In November, The Salt Lake Tribune reported thousands of students participating in online classes were failing at least one class. Locally, Logan High School Principal Kenneth Auld said “the jury is still out.”
“We did have more kids who had incompletes after the first quarter than we did last year because we have parents keeping kids at home and quarantining students,” he said. “We’ve found students who were quarantined in the first quarter weren’t as engaged as they are now.”
Auld said there was a perception in the first quarter that all quarantined students were going to automatically pass because classes had been much more flexible when schools transitioned to online in the spring semester.
Logan High’s first week of online classes finished on Friday, and Auld said “more students engaged this week online than in the three months when schools were cancelled at the end of spring.”
“We’re pleasantly surprised with the amount of students engaging while they’re quarantined, maybe because we were more prepared,” he said. “When we’re face-to-face, it’s easier for teachers to help the kids who are struggling. When they’re at home, it’s much harder because we’re relying on them to contact the school.”
With the updated quarantine guidelines, the “Low Risk Test to Return” protocol will also change. After the new year, the districts’ pop-up rapid antigen testing clinics will transition to testing teachers and staff, who under the new guidelines may opt into weekly testing.
Changes to the threshold of how many COVID-19 cases need to be reached for the state to recommend a school closure were also announced.
Under previous guidelines, it was recommended schools consider a move to online classes after 15 cases were identified. The new guidelines recommend schools consider a move to remote after 1% of the student population has tested positive, or a minimum of 15 students at schools with student bodies smaller than 1,500.
In the valley, this only changes the threshold for Logan, Green Canyon and Ridgeline high schools — but only by allowing an additional one or two cases — before the school makes a decision.
The recommendation to transition a single class to online with five cases will now only apply to elementary schools.
If the schoolwide threshold is met, schools will now have the option to rapid-test every student in order to continue in-person learning for every individual who tests negative for the virus, while positive cases and those who opt-out of testing still quarantine.
The “Test to Stay Open” protocol was established this month in Davis and Granite schools to mixed results.
“Some have done it very successfully; others, it’s been a challenge just because so many opted out of testing,” Smith said. “We’ll have to see. I’m hoping we don’t even reach that point, but we’ll make that decision when we get there.”
Saunders announced the mask requirement in schools will continue through at least Jan. 21, though the statewide mandate is in effect — regardless of the transmission risk in the county — and will likely continue through the rest of the school year. School administrators have applauded the decision.
“In the beginning, I never thought we would make it through the first quarter,” Auld said. “Wearing masks is what’s kept us in-person. School is one of the safest places a kid can be, when they’re wearing their masks all day. It’s kept them protected from getting the virus from other students.”