SALT LAKE CITY — The regularly scheduled start to the Utah school year is quickly approaching and school districts are faced with the task of creating re-opening plans. The Utah State Board of Education has released guidelines for districts to follow, but each district is able to come up with its own unique plan that best fits the need of the community.
"The Utah State Board of Education (USBE) worked with a panel of experts—educators, administrators, public health experts, physicians, epidemiologists, teacher representatives—to articulate minimum elements and requirements that Local Education Agencies (LEAs) must address as they plan to reopen schools for in-person instruction in the fall of 2020," the state's website said.
On Tuesday, Utah’s largest teacher union, the Utah Education Association (UEA), called for a delay in the return to school buildings due to COVID-19.
Wednesday, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE), announced they would be supporting the UEA’s call to delay the start to the school year.
“We have seen that premature opening of the economy in many states has only served to create crisis level spread. There is every reason to assume that opening up schools in the setting of persistently high rates of infection will do the same,” the UPHE said in a news release.
District leaders in Utah are working closely with local health departments as the plans are being drafted, Jordan Mathis, Tri County Health Dept. Health Officer, said.
“We’re not approving their plans. We can make recommendations on how we think their plan could improve,” he said.
There are also plans and discussions in the works for scenarios such as what to do when a student tests positive for Covid-19 etc.
There are many challenges, Mathis said but they are doing everything they can to help the school districts navigate, even challenges like contact sports, choir and band which don’t follow Covid-19 guidelines.
“There are some extracurricular activities that public health simply will not sanction but if they are going to move forward with those activities, we want to be a resource to advise them on how to best mitigate those risks,” he said.
In Davis County, health department director Brian Hatch said they have been meeting with school leaders several times a week since July.
“The schools are absolutely engaged with public health and working through these things together,” he said.
This is a challenge no one has faced before, which makes it extremely difficult Hatch and Mathis agree.
“There is no cookie cutter here where you can put one plan out for every school,” Hatch said.
Leaders are looking at ways to advance cleaning, encourage hand washing, monitor mask wearing and while all are challenges, Hatch admits social distancing will be the hardest one to achieve.
“That is a very uphill climb to get physical distancing,” he said.
Tuesday, the Davis County School District announced new re-opening plans, opting for a hybrid, alternating schedule.
“What that is, is them adhering to trying to meet physical distancing,” Hatch said.
Dr. Jay Jacobson, Emeritus Professor of Infectious Disease, said he believes schools can re-open safely if it is done correctly. Resources like the CDC and WHO are some of the organizations Dr. Jacobson said he relies on for information.
While he supports the ideas many of said such as physical distancing and personal hygiene, he hopes schools will go a step further.
“It’s not inconceivable and or even that difficult to check children for symptoms and temperature every day before school starts and perhaps every week for actual tests to be done,” Dr. Jacobson.
Data shows there is not a great risk of school aged children having severe symptoms from Covid-19 but they could spread that disease to people in the higher risk population, Dr. Jacobson said. Things such as infection rates and hospital capacity should be taken into consideration when re-opening schools, he said.
“It is not appropriate to open schools if an epidemic is literally out of control. That is if we are seeing test positive rates for example approaching 10 percent,” he said.
For the latest number of Covid-19 cases, positive rates, hospitalizations and deaths in Utah, click here.
The Utah Department of Health is expected to release a school manual within the next few days, a spokesperson for the department said. It is expected to be like that one the business manual and include health recommendations for schools including quarantine, prevention strategies and more.