‘The only exit plan here is a vaccine’: School board discusses future outlook with health official

ST. GEORGE — During a special meeting held Monday night by the Washington County School District Board of Education, Dr. David Blodgett, director and health officer for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, discussed the reopening plan and the future outlook for schools within the district.

David Blodgett discusses the school reopening plan with the Washington County School District Board of Education, St. George, Utah, Aug. 31, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

Blodgett has been working with the district since the schools were shut down on March 13.

Superintendent Larry Bergeson said as of Monday there have been approximately 10 cases of COVID-19 within the district. Not all of these cases have been students – some have been teachers – and most of them have been asymptomatic. Since the schools reopened, there have been more than 150 student who have been quarantined due to having been exposed.

According to state guidelines, a school would have to have 15 cases within school before a shutdown would be considered.

Blodgett said 15 in a school is an interesting figure.

“Let’s say there’s 1,500 kids in a school. The spread in a community would be a pretty high number, higher than we’ve ever made it on a per 100,000 basis,” he said, “so I’m hoping we never get there and we can keep schools open.”

All of those numbers are relative, he added, and then further clarified the criteria that would cause a school to get shut down.

“It’s not 15 kids in a school,” he said “It’s five classrooms with three kids that have transmitted to each other in the school. We are looking for evidence of why it’s spread, transmission within the school setting. And given the safety precautions we’ve put in place, I just don’t think we’ll ever get there.”

Of the 10 cases so far, none of them have been transmitted from student to student, Blodgett said, adding that there has been no evidence of transmission within a school outside of sports, “which is a different story.”

Board member Laura Hesson and superintendent Larry Bergeson discuss modified quarantine during the Washington County School District Board of Education meeting, St. George, Utah, Aug. 31, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

“The naysayers of the world would say, ‘Ah, we thought this was going to blow up and we’d be out of school in two weeks,’ which hasn’t happened, and we’re very far from that mark now,” he said.

Because there is not yet any evidence of student-to-student transmission or student-to-teacher transmission within the district, board member Terry Hutchinson asked Blodgett whether it was time to revisit the quarantine policy, primarily concerning the modified quarantine that changed on Aug. 6 by the order of Gov. Gary Herbert.

Previous to the change, the modified quarantine allowed students, teachers or staff permission to return to school following an exposure as long as they were not exhibiting symptoms.

“Why would we quarantine healthy kids if there’s no student-to-student transmission that they’re seeing?” Hutchinson said. “Obviously it’s better for those students to be in-person, and if it’s not transmitting from student to student then why are we overkilling with the quarantine?”

Blodgett said he worked for two months to try to get the modified quarantine approved for the district. It was in place and ready to go when some entities lobbied the Utah State Board of Education and got that changed. He said he was working to get students and teachers to be considered “essential,” which was ultimately turned down.

What makes this further frustrating, Blodgett said, is that the state says the reopening plans are up to the local district but sends them in circles because “they (the state board) don’t want to take ownership.”

Students walk to school, St. George, Utah, Aug. 27, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

“This is where people play chicken,” he said. “It really frosts me that the governor’s office does stuff like this because they do it all the time, say ‘Oh, go talk to your local health department because they can fix things,’ but the answer is: ‘No, because it’s in the order.'”

Hutchinson’s main concern was that since schools opened in the district, more than 150 students have been required to stay home from school and quarantine, which is disrupting their education. He said he understands that Blodgett does not have the power to overturn what the state officials have decided and that he didn’t think it was fair to put pressure on him to do so.

“But frankly, other than what we’re hearing from risk management, I believe it’s an independent decision of the board as to do that,” Hutchinson said. “We can take the votes, and we can do it. All they can do is overcorrect us.”

Bergeson said that people such as State Rep. Brad Last have been asking the state officials what the criteria is, which is what many people are wanting to know.

Attendees at the “End the Mask Mandate Rally” hold up signs in front of the Washington County School District offices, St. George, Utah, Aug. 21, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

“What’s the criteria? What are the numbers that we’re looking for? When can we stop wearing masks? Is there an end? Is there a number that we’re looking for?” Bergeson asked. “What are we shooting for in order to say, ‘Masks can now come off or the quarantine can now be modified?'”

Blodgett said the federal Centers for Disease Control has instructed them to have their plans be in place by the end of October for the November vaccine delivery.

David Stirland, president of the board, asked Blodgett if there will start to be alleviation in the policy since the state is seeing a decrease in cases, to which Blodgett said he would like that to be the case, but it isn’t.

“There isn’t an end goal,” Blodgett said. “I think the only exit plan here is the vaccine to be honest with you. And I don’t know if that’s acceptable, but that’s what it is from a state perspective.”

While Hutchinson and Craig Seegmiller were hopeful to reclaim the modified quarantine, other board members such as Laura Hesson, Becky Dunn and Kelly Blake were opposed to changes that go against state guidelines. Lyle Cox, director of human resources for the school district, said going against the state could put litigation on their shoulders.

Hesson said, “Maybe we should just count our blessings for a little while and move forward.”

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

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