ST. GEORGE — In a letter issued Thursday, Gov. Spencer Cox, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson and legislative leaders addressed the surge of the omicron variant of COVID-19 among Utah’s K-12 students. The letter, which was sent to every school in the state, changes the protocol for schools experiencing critical levels of infection and eliminates the existing test-to-stay protocol.
Under the previous guidelines, schools that passed a certain threshold of cases – 30 cases at schools with less than 1,500 students, for instance – were required to hold a campus-wide testing event. Students testing positive for COVID-19 would be sent home to quarantine, while those testing negative could remain in school.
Under the new plan, if approved by the local school board, schools encountering a serious spike in sick students will be able to move from in-person instruction to remote schooling starting with the school weeks beginning Jan. 17 and Jan. 25.
One reason for the change is the sheer number of kits needed for a test-to-stay campaign, which represents an over-allocation of resources to a youthful population that tends to recover quickly from COVID-19, particularly the fast-moving but reportedly less severe omicron variant.
The new policy will allow the Utah Department of Health “to devote its testing resources to congregate-care facilities, long term care facilities and community testing sites,” the letter states.
Further, the letter states that the omicron variant is so transmissible that by the time test-to-stay is enacted the virus will have already swept through the school population.
The letter said the go-ahead for temporary online schooling is consistent with state statutes:
The Utah code also provides a temporary exception to that in-person requirement when the governor, the president of the Senate, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the state superintendent of public instruction jointly concur with an LEA’s assessment that due to public health emergency circumstances, the risks related to in-person instruction temporarily outweigh the value of in-person instruction.
Local numbers rising
The Utah Department of Health releases state COVID-19 numbers every day. This includes the numbers of test-confirmed cases in every school district in the state. As of Friday afternoon, no Iron County or Washington County schools were in the red zone, in which school closure is recommended.
There are, however, five area schools in yellow alert, meaning their numbers of active COVID-19 cases are creeping alarmingly close to threshold levels.
In the Washington County School District, schools with a particularly brisk infection rate include Pine View High, with 22 students out with COVID-19; Snow Canyon High, with 17; Crimson Cliffs High School, with 16; and Desert Hills High School, with 16. In Iron County, Cedar City High School has posted 16 cases.
Washington County and Iron County school districts have both worked hard to remain open amid the pandemic, as it’s been determined kids learn better with in-person instruction and fare better emotionally.
Lance Hatch, superintendent of the Iron County School District, emphasized that the district is closely monitoring the situation.
“We communicate regularly with the Southwest Utah Public Health Department and we follow their recommendations,” he wrote in an email to the St. George News. “We will continue to follow the State guidance that we receive.”
During a work meeting on Wednesday, held prior to the regular meeting of the Washington County School District Board of Education, Superintendent Larry Bergeson addressed the rising COVID-19 infections. He explained that the increase is especially exponential if you look at the numbers provided by Washington County schools rather than the health department.
“Prior to the holiday we were about 30 to 40 cases by our unconfirmed school numbers,” he said. “After the break, on Thursday (we had) 64, Friday, 95, yesterday, 125.”
District Communications Director Steven Dunham explained why there’s a disparity between school and health department numbers.
“Parents call our schools and report their absences. Sometimes the parents say their child has COVID and sometimes they assume because they know someone close who has it and their child’s symptoms are similar,” he said, adding that the school secretaries then compile those numbers and report them to the district, and then they provide them to the health department.
“The health department then works to contact the families and confirm that the case is verified by a positive test. That is our understanding,” Dunham added.
There were fewer cases on Wednesday, at which time Bergeson was optimistic that the district would be able to continue in-school instruction and avoid the then active test-to-stay directive. He also pointed to data from other omicron hotbeds like South Africa and the UK, which indicate an easier spread and faster recovery.
He said he expects to see the same narrow bell curve at local schools, one that peaks fast and recedes quickly. Bergeson said experts are forecasting the omicron surge should be ebbing away by the end of the month.
“Our concern is keeping school in session,” he said, “because nationally, everyone knows kids need to be in school.”
There is one contingency, however, that could derail the goal. Bergeson and staff discussed a worrisome development: COVID-19-related absenteeism among school staff, from teachers to bus drivers to cooks. He said that on Tuesday, a single elementary school had seven teachers out with COVID-19. Considering the school employs 28 certified teachers, that represented one-fourth of the school’s instructors out sick.
“We think we’re going to be OK, but we just want you to know that that’s our biggest threat, and our biggest concern,” Bergeson said.
Dunham confirmed the staffing crunch in a later email.
“This is the more likely scenario we will face, is staff shortages leading to problems throughout the District,” he wrote. “Right now we are just four bus drivers away from having to cancel bus routes. Hopefully it will not get any worse.”
Local schools will be closed Monday, not due to COVID-19 but for MLK Day. As for the days to follow, time will tell.
“While we hope to not need to take advantage of the Governor’s new efforts, we will continue to work closely with the health department and watch the continued growth of the virus in our community and adjust as necessary,” Dunham said.
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