‘If you’re sick at all, stay home’: Rising COVID-19 cases put some Washington County schools at risk

ST. GEORGE —  Just ahead of the holiday break, the Washington County School District is seeing all-time highs in COVID-19 cases among both students and staff, which has led district officials to plead with parents, students and staff to “just stay home” if they are feeling sick to ensure schools stay open.

L-R: Board member Terry Hutchinson and Superintendent Larry Bergeson of the Washington County School District Board of Education and Dr. David Blodgett, director and health officer for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department at a meeting, St. George, Utah, Aug. 31, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

During a district board of education special meeting held Monday evening, Superintendent Larry Bergeson said while there are no schools currently in danger of being shut down due to positive cases, there have been some on the edge, such as Water Canyon and Snow Canyon schools.

“We were right there at one school, but then it went right back down when we came back from the weekend, and we’ve been able to stay down. We’ve had a little scare today at Water Canyon with one family that had five kids at one school and five kids at another with positive tests,” Bergeson said, adding that they hurried to get those kids out of the schools and hopes that the holiday break will help to minimize any additional spread.

As of Friday, Steven Dunham, district communications director, told St. George News there are 98 students and 50 staff members who currently have the coronavirus and a total of 961 in quarantine.

“I think the concern we’re seeing … is the number of people coming to schools sick,” he said. “This is mostly students, but it’s also some staff members. And we’re being very clear: If you’re sick at all, stay home.”

During the meeting, in response to board member Becky Dunn’s inquiry about excessive absenteeism, Rex Wilkey, the assistant superintendent for elementary schools, said it’s not absenteeism in students where they are seeing a problem but rather in having enough teachers and staff to cover for those in quarantine.

“The kids are not the issue; it’s just keeping enough adults in the building,” Wilkey said.

Dunham said this is the issue jeopardizing their ability to keep schools open — more than students testing positive — because given a certain amount of staff member absences, they will have to shut that building down.

“If we had three secretaries, say at a middle school, sick in the front office, there’s no way we could cover for that. We may have to reach a situation where we’d have to close that school down for a period of time until we could find substitutes to come in and cover for secretaries,” he said.

Dunham said they can usually find a substitute for a teacher that’s sick, but it’s these other positions — secretaries, bus drivers, administrators or lunch workers — who are much more difficult to replace.

“The support staff keeps our schools running,” he said.

Stock photo by Daniel Chekalov on Unsplash, St. George News

Lyle Cox, the district human resources director, said right now they have 97 teachers out on sick leave, which includes all sick leave, not just quarantine.

“We’ve been hovering right around 90 for weeks,” he said, adding that this is comparable to other years.

Dunham said they plan to send out a message to parents after the holiday break “begging them that if your students are sick, keep them home. If your child has tested positive, please let us know so we can contact trace.”

Aside from the rise in cases, Bergeson said district teachers are feeling the added pressure of having to not only perform their regular teaching duties, but also tend to the quarantined students. In response to this, the district has made some adjustments to help alleviate some pressure.

“We’re just asking everyone to temper the workload to balance, so we can carry on and still teach at high levels as best as we can,” Bergeson said.

Dunham said with some of the COVID-19 relief funding the district received, they have also purchased about 900 cameras to install in classrooms so teachers will be able to live-stream classes. They will be receiving half of them before Dec. 31, and the other half will be sent after.

“Eventually, they’ll be in all schools, but we’re going to start with the core curriculum classes because those are the classes that are harder to make up,” he said.

For the elementary schools, they will probably install one per grade level in each school to begin with, he said.

Bergeson also discussed some updates in testing, primarily for athletes. Tryouts begin Tuesday and all students will be tested previous to tryouts. Per the governor’s order, students participating in sports will be tested every other week for the coronavirus. In order to prevent students from tampering with tests, like what happened previously with some members of the drill dance and cheer teams, they are initiating stricter measures.

Dunham said the students who tried to cheat the test before used cotton swabs with rubbing alcohol and swiped their noses before the test. Due to their actions, these students were not able to participate. In order to prevent this from happening again, Dunham said schools will be giving less notice to students about when they will be tested and will be monitored closely in the time-frame preceding testing.

Bergeson said any student who is found tampering with a test or trying to cheat the test will be excluded from participation.

Overall though, Bergeson said he thinks it’s important to note that they are doing really well.

“The more we can keep kids in school, the better.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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