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Low rate of COVID-19 spread in Utah's schools, but off-campus activities are a big problem

Posted at 4:56 PM, Sep 16, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has seen a relatively low spread of COVID-19 in schools, education and health officials said, but off-campus activities are partly to blame for a spike of cases of the deadly virus.

During a lengthy hearing on Tuesday in the Utah State Legislature's Interim Education Committee, lawmakers were briefed on back-to-school efforts in K-12 schools, as well as colleges and universities. State schools superintendent Dr. Sydnee Dickson testified that students largely were complying with a mask mandate imposed by the governor without issue.

There has also been a relatively low spread of COVID-19 originating in schools.

"We all held our breaths when school started because so many of our students were coming back in person. And we’ve been surprised to see such a low rate of school-based spread," Dr. Dickson testified. "And we want to celebrate that and we feel this is in part because of the mitigation tactics in school. Our goal is to stop the virus before it gets to the school."

Lawmakers were briefed on the same day that Utah's Department of Health reported a spike in COVID-19 cases statewide, with 747 new cases reported. Much of those new cases are originating in Utah County, where local health officials have blamed some of them on off-campus parties being thrown around Brigham Young University in Provo and Utah Valley University in Orem.

Dr. Astrid Tuminez, the president of UVU, acknowledged it was a problem during her testimony before the legislature. While her university's back-to-school efforts have been "relatively calm" and students comply with a mask mandate and health guidelines on campus, she said off-campus activities have been an issue because health guidelines are largely ignored by students.

Contact tracing remains an issue because "it's hundreds of people over a weekend," Dr. Tuminez told the committee.

Overall, school district leaders felt they were prepared to start school. They acknowledged that teachers have felt anxiety over returning to the classroom and potential exposure to COVID-19. Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, who is a teacher by profession, urged expanded testing even among potentially asymptomatic school staff.

"Our teachers are stressed out... about whether they're positive or not," she said.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said they are days away from rolling out expanded testing for school staffers. She cautioned that a negative COVID-19 test "means you're negative in that moment" and did not want to give anyone a false sense of security. Testing has been slow to expand because capacity remains an issue, she told the committee.

Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, said he knew of many people -- including himself -- who were reluctant to get a COVID-19 test because of so many fears about being identified or having to quarantine.

"What do we do about me who doesn't want to get tested? It puts me out on the radar," Rep. Strong said.

Dr. Dunn continued to plead with people to seek out a test for even the most mild symptoms of COVID-19. Declining to seek a test is "unfortunate because we know the best way to protect your family and community is to know where the virus is spreading."

She said research has showed at least half of COVID-19 spread is pre-symptomatic, meaning it is spread before symptoms even manifest themselves in the originating patient.

When it comes to keeping the novel coronavirus out of schools, local districts acknowledged that teachers are stressed because of increased workloads from in-person and online instruction being placed on them, as well as making sure their classrooms are virus free. Students have also felt additional stress from the virus, Dr. Dickson said.

She pleaded with the legislature to treat broadband internet access "like a utility" and expand it statewide to help give students better learning capabilities. The Utah State Board of Education echoed her remarks, asking for internet access to be expanded throughout communities across the state.

Dr. Tuminez said college students have felt stress. Many lost jobs in the service industry when COVID-19 hit and UVU has increased resources for affordable housing and food insecurity. Higher education will be a driver of economic recovery, she testified, but issued a warning.

"Our lower-income students are dropping out at an alarming rate," she said.