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'Test to stay,' masks recommended for unvaccinated in Utah's COVID-19 back-to-school plans

Posted at 4:50 PM, Jul 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-09 19:20:04-04

SALT LAKE CITY — In preparation for students returning to the classroom next month, Utah's Department of Health is meeting with state education leaders, local health departments and others to formulate back-to-school plans with COVID-19 in mind.

"We know there are a significant chunk of school kids who are not eligible for the vaccine," said Tom Hudachko, a spokesman for UDOH.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recommended that fully vaccinated students and faculty would no longer be required to wear face masks. It did continue to recommend masks for unvaccinated people.

The Utah State Legislature this year banned mask mandates for K-12 schools. Hudachko said it was UDOH's recommendation that unvaccinated people continue to wear masks in indoor public settings — including schools.

Renée Pinkney, a high school social studies teacher and the vice-president of the Utah Education Association (the state's largest teacher's union) said she supported the CDC guidance. She was also fine with UDOH's recommendation on masking.

"I teach in high school, and I teach seniors. My experience? I didn’t have much difficulty in terms of students wearing masks. I think if it’s a recommendation, that’s always easier to manage than a mandate," Pinkney told FOX 13.

Some districts plan no COVID-19 restrictions when they return starting next month. The Davis School District told FOX 13 that it would be back to a five-day-a-week school schedule (offering some online learning). There will also be no COVID-19 testing required for participation in extracurricular activities.

"In a related note, some of the practices we’ve used in the 'Big Five' make sense to continue into the new school year. Those would include proper handwashing and hygiene etiquette, staying home when sick, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces. Schools will also continue to provide hand sanitizer for anyone who wants to use it," district spokeswoman Shauna Lund said in an email to FOX 13.

UDOH's plans, which will be published later this month, will deal with some tricky issues. There's the issue of quarantining and isolation with families where one student is vaccinated and another is not, or how to handle outbreaks. The legislature authorized "test to stay," where COVID-19 testing is offered at a school with an outbreak (but students won't be forced to get a test). Any student who tests positive must isolate, but the class can continue in-person instruction.

"We know there are going to be COVID-19 outbreaks in our schools. We’re working with schools, with local health departments to come up with a disease plan that really spells out for schools and parents what they can expect when cases are identified in a school," Hudachko said.

Pinkney said the UEA has long advocated decisions about school plans "be based on the science." But she said she is feeling a little more confident about this school year, more familiar with technology and the ability to pivot to different modes of instruction.

Still, she did express some concern about COVID-19 cases climbing.

"I just really don’t know what to expect, but from my perspective as a teacher in the classroom, I have some tools in my tool belt now that I didn’t have going into last year," she said.