ST. GEORGE — While there have been some rumors that the Washington County School District plans to close schools after the Thanksgiving break, Superintendent Larry Bergeson told St. George News on Thursday morning that this is definitely not the case.
“Washington County School District will continue with five-day-a-week, in-person school between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he said.
The rumor, he suspects, came from higher education, as there are three universities that do plan on closing after Thanksgiving: Southern Utah University, Utah State University and the University of Utah. But Dixie State University has no plans to go remote and neither does the district.
Even though they have no plans to close, Bergeson said the holidays do cause some concern.
“I think the worry with Thanksgiving – as with any holiday – is families get together; they travel,” he said. “We are encouraging people to certainly enjoy their families but be cautious about spreading too far outside their normal family contacts during the holiday season to help limit the spread.”
As of Tuesday, the district had 83 active cases of COVID-19: 50 students and 33 “or so” employees. Over 400 students and approximately 50 employees were under quarantine. These numbers have nearly doubled since Oct. 26.
While those numbers are worrisome, Bergeson said they are responding appropriately and following all guidelines to keep employees and students in school as long as is safely possible.
“Our cases are mirroring the cases in the community,” he said. “However, it still has failed to meet 1% of our students or even 1% of our staff at any given time, so it is a relatively low number, relatively small amounts of transmission happening in the school setting. Most of these cases happen out in the community.”
Bergeson said they have had “possibly several” accounts of student-to-student transmission and was “not aware of any student-to-teacher transmissions,” but he added also that it is somewhat difficult to track transmissions.
Steven Dunham, communications director for the district, further clarified the challenge of tracking transmissions. What they consider a student-to student transmission is if a student they’ve quarantined due to potential exposure tests positive.
“I don’t know if that meets the exact same criteria that the health department would use for a student-to-student transmission, but we’re making that inference that that is what has happened and taken place,” he said.
What complicates tracking even more, he said, is that students who are friends in school are also friends outside of school, where the likelihood of wearing a mask is much lower. So whether the student-to-student transmission actually happened inside of a school or somewhere else is difficult to discern.
For schools to close, Bergeson said, cases would have to significantly increase.
“Hospitals and what their capacity is, both in the ICU and their general floors, is going to be a big factor,” he said. “I think the other thing that could affect us specifically here in school is if too many teachers come down positive with the virus – that’s going to cause us real problems.”
Other risk factors would be bus drivers, cooks or other critical employees contracting the virus in too high of numbers, or having concentrations within a school. But this wouldn’t be reason to shut down the whole district, he said.
The most positive tests they’ve had at a school at any given time is “either four or five.” Fifteen cases in one school is the general guideline for a school to close.
Finally, if the cases become significant enough, the public health department and the Governor’s Office could make a decision like they did in March, when all Utah public schools were closed.
On Sunday night, as part of Gov. Gary Herbert’s emergency declaration, the governor said that cases in the state as a whole were significant enough to institute a mask mandate and ban social gatherings. Along with these orders, Herbert announced a suspension of afterschool activities and sports. with the exception of playoff games, through Nov. 22, but he stopped short of shutting down schools.
While there haven’t been any schools in Washington County previously at risk for getting shut down, Bergeson said they have had two classes they had to close due to a teacher contracting the virus and exposing students through the teaching/learning process.
“We felt it in the best interest to shut the class down for a few weeks, so we don’t risk any further exposure within that school,” he said.
In this case, students stayed home and the teacher, if well enough, continued to teach the class remotely. The students and teacher then returned to school when it was deemed safe.
At this point, Bergeson said everyone is suffering from “pandemic fatigue,” but he warned against becoming complacent, especially with the current spike in cases.
“The pandemic fatigue is a very real thing, but we just have to bear this burden together, support each other and realize the term ‘synergistic’ is true in this case and that as we combine our efforts together, we’ll be able to accomplish more than we are able to individually – so we work as a team.”
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