‘A lot of it has been in theory’: School district says they still expect changes after reopening

ST. GEORGE — As Washington County schools prepare to reopen on Thursday, administrators say they are still expecting to make further modifications to their reopening plan in order to keep students, teachers and staff safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stock image by FamVeld/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Part of the reason for the possible modifications is due to not yet knowing how the plan will actually work in real time, as well as a need to stay flexible as information and guidelines continues to change.

One of these recently changed set of guidelines is regarding how schools should respond when a student, teacher or staff member is exposed for at least 15 minutes to a person who tests positive for COVID-19.

Under the original guidelines, a student, teacher or staff member who was exposed to a person who tested positive for COVID-19 would be able to return to school as long as he or she was not exhibiting any symptoms related to the coronavirus.

But on Aug. 6, the Utah Department of Health and Gov. Gary Herbert made adjustments to the plan, recommending that anyone exposed for longer than 15 minutes should stay home for a 14-day quarantine regardless if they are experiencing any symptoms.

Because this is a state guideline, it is up to the districts to decide whether to implement it and if so, how to implement.

Stock photo by
Halfpoint/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Steven Dunham, communications director for the Washington County School District, told St. George News that they are working with the local health department directly to meet expectations.

“We want our staff and our students to feel safe, recover and return to school as quickly as possible,” he said. “We are working very closely with Dr. Blodgett to ensure we do that.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, he said the Southwest Utah Public Health Department is still working on what the exact guideline will look like.

There is a good chance that they will handle these types of exposures on an individual basis, but Dunham said that is still under consideration by the health department.

St. George News reached out to David Blodgett, the board of health officer for the Southwest Utah Health Department, but as of publication of this article, there has not been a response.

File photo of Dr. David Blodgett, director and health officer for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, at a staff meeting inside the Iron County Commission chambers, Parowan, Utah, March 16, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

When asked about the modification, David Heaton, the public information officer for the Southwest Utah Health Department, referred St. George News to the new state guideline.

The guideline states: “You may be asked to quarantine for 14 days if you were exposed to COVID-19. This means you were in close contact with someone who has COVID-19. Close contact means you were closer than 6 feet from someone who has the virus for 15 minutes or more.”

Still, the language in the guideline is not a hard line, which is somewhat indicative that this will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Washington County is not the first district to open schools. Some schools have already opened across the United States or are set to open soon. However, opinions on the decision to reopen schools still remain somewhat divided.

Washington County School District Superintendent Larry Bergeson listens to the discussion during the public hearing about the district’s reopening plan, St. George, Utah, July 27, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

An article published by the Centers for Disease Control advocated for opening schools, saying that extended school closures are harmful to children as they can severely hinder learning, especially for low-income and minority students and those with heightened behavioral needs.

While on the other side, an article in The Atlantic says that schools reopening is a track for failure, as the spread is likely to get out of control and there is still not enough research on how kids are impacted by the virus.

This uncertainty was addressed during the Washington County School District Board of Education meeting Tuesday. Superintendent Larry Bergeson said opening schools and moving forward is what they need to do in order to refine the plan. At this point, it’s a matter of course correcting, he said.

“A lot of it has been in theory,” Bergeson said. “It’s about to go into practice. And we’ll see if this all comes to fruition the way we envision it will. But that’s always the worry. But I believe we’re honestly to the point that we need that to know what else we need to do to get ready.”

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

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