The start of the new year goes along with a clean state for students as the new term starts. On Monday, school districts in the valley are experiencing the same relief because the break before Christmas means nearly every quarantine due to school-exposure to COVID-19 is ending.
“If they’re not back yet, they will be soon,” said Shana Longhurst, the communication specialist for Logan City School District.
There are only a handful of students and even fewer staff at the district in quarantine due to a positive test result.
But because the cases of coronavirus were detected either prior to or early on in the break and school exposure was at a minimum, the school dashboard has been reset to zero at the direction of the Bear River Health Department, according to Longhurst.
“It’s really nice and we hope the numbers stay low and we can keep kids in schools,” she said.
Superintendent Frank Schofield said while the numbers are pretty low now, the district expects to see a bump in cases as holiday exposures become symptomatic, though he hopes it’s not significant.
“With the rapid testing, we’re catching those students early, which is great,” he said. “We can catch them and put them in quarantine and prevent the likelihood of any spread happening, and that seems to be going well based on the case counts we’re seeing.”
The district, like the rest of Utah, saw a bump in cases after Halloween and then another after Thanksgiving, which — coupled with cases of athletic and school-activity spread — caused Logan High School to move to a virtual format for the last week of classes in 2020.
“We expect to see some bumps due to everyone having two weeks at home,” Schofield said, “but we’re also hopeful that everything that we’re seeing, with mask-wearing and the way students are behaving in school, that we can continue to limit the amount of school-based spread.”
Schofield said the move to remote was crucial in containing further spread, and Tim Smith, with Cache County School District, said the same of Ridgeline High School’s move online in November.
Both Schofield and Smith said they feel confident with the low numbers of school spread. Caleb Harrison, the Bear River Health Department’s epidemiologist, agreed.
“The numbers that we have on school-transmitted cases, they’ve continued to stay low, but … as schools are in session, that just kind of resumes everybody’s schedule,” Harrison said. “So people go back to work, and people have social gatherings, and things like that, and so that could certainly influence the case counts to go up as we saw them do when school started in September.”
Throughout the local districts, state and even across the country, widespread mitigation efforts like masks, proper hygiene and physical distancing have slowed the spread of the virus. It’s typically when students and their families participate in gatherings outside of school where infections occur, according to Harrison.
“I think there will certainly be a bump up from Christmas and New Year’s gatherings, and I think that’ll be most apparent in late January,” Harrison said. “We’re keeping an eye on things there but expecting at least a small increase in cases to come from that.”
Another factor that could be influencing low numbers in schools is less access to testing. With the governor and the Utah Department of Health’s new regulations for COVID-19 in schools, athletic teams, including those in off-season conditioning, and performance and activity groups are to be tested weekly.
But those did not happen during the winter break.
Similarly, the BRHD has seen fewer people getting tested since the end of September, and even fewer since November when Utah State University moved to remote learning and stopped massive testing efforts.
“We didn’t do as much testing, but most of our positive numbers will generally come from people who have tested through their medical provider,” Schofield said. “So it is a possibility that people didn’t choose to go get tested. That’s something we’re going to have to wait and see over the next few days and see if we get a bump that shows the results of what everyone’s behavior was over the break.”
In Cache County School District, Smith said there were 28 cases among teachers and students on Sunday — down from the 58 active cases reported on Dec. 22.
By Monday morning, it had increased to 43. Similar to the cases in Logan City School District, Smith said the increase is “likely due to community spread with no contact tracing needed (due) to the fact students weren’t in school.”
Harrison said as schools return and resume testing, it will decrease the community’s percent-positivity — 35% of tests in Cache County came back positive over the past seven days — because more of the tests from schools tend to be negative. Additionally, there’s an increase in community testing opportunities.
“We’re excited that testing seems to be ramping up in the state, especially in the school population, which, you know, is important because that’s the population that’s farthest away from getting a vaccine,” he said. “So it’s important to be able to keep a close eye on what’s happening there.”
Monday marked the first day of athletics testing since the holiday break, and Smith said seven more cases were identified: one at Green Canyon and six at Mountain Crest — currently the highest concentration in the district.