ST. GEORGE — With the 2021-22 school year set to begin Aug. 12, administrators in the Washington County School District are weighing educational goals against health concerns as COVID cases rise in the county and across the state.
Superintendent Larry Bergeson told the St. George News about the district’s current plans, with the understanding that, much like last year, policies may change subject to the pandemic’s development and counsel from local health officials.
“At this point – supported by our local public health director, Dr. David Blodgett, our school board and the vast majority of parents and people in the community – we do not plan on requiring masks,” Bergeson said.
In addition, the district does not plan to mandate quarantine for students who were exposed to COVID-positive peers, implement “test to stay” or “test to play” programs or require vaccination for students and educators.
“If you want to invite a fight, just announce you’re going to open with masks,” Bergeson said. “We all know that the Delta variant is causing a surge in cases, and there’s some understandable apprehension. But let’s not respond too strict. Let’s let real numbers guide our response, and let’s be reasonable with that response.”
The superintendent’s response preceded the announcement by Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday that he wouldn’t be pushing for mask mandates in schools or try to rollback the recent state law prohibiting individual districts from passing their own mandates.
“I don’t believe that mandates are, under the circumstances, with what we know right now, are necessary,” Cox said.
Several national and statewide public health agencies have recently recommended the continued use of masks while indoors, and both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have advocated for the use of masks in schools regardless of vaccination status.
“We recommend unvaccinated people choose to wear masks in indoor settings,” said Tom Hudachko, chief of communications for the Utah Department of Health. “Of course, we’re always watching how the virus and the pandemic are evolving, but at this point we have not changed our guidance regarding masks.”
Nearby Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas and Mesquite, announced their plans to continue requiring masks in schools on Tuesday.
Bergeson said the decision to move forward without a mask mandate was motivated in part by the district’s interpretation of COVID data gathered in the past year. He said that student-to-student transmission was rare, and serious illness in children under the age of 18 even more so.
Some parents have applauded the health and safety protocols implemented by state and local education officials, or at least recognized the efforts of school officials to try and keep schools open.
Emily Murphy, a parent and PTO president at Diamond Valley Elementary School, expressed her gratitude for the district’s measured response but also explained her willingness and that of her child to do what’s in the best interest of others.
“I’m not pro-mask or anything like that: I just want to keep people safe,” Murphy said. “It’s not about protecting yourself, it’s about protecting others. If a piece of fabric can do it, I just don’t understand why people get upset. I hate wearing it, but if it will keep someone else safe, why would I not do it?”
On the other hand, many local parents and community members have been vocal opponents of mask mandates, protesting outside school buildings and the district office building as well as voicing concerns at public meetings.
The protocol regarding quarantine and isolation will also be different in the upcoming school year.
Students and teachers who test positive for COVID-19 will still be required to self-isolate for the recommended 10 days after symptoms appear (or seven days with a negative COVID test). In contrast with last year, the district will not enforce quarantine for those who may have come into contact with the COVID-positive individual.
Amy Barton, the president of the local teacher’s association and a second grade teacher at Coral Canyon Elementary School, said she hoped that teachers would still be notified when their students test positive.
“If a student in a classroom tests positive, will the health department notify the school that the student has tested positive, and will immediate contacts with that student be notified?” Barton asked. “People might feel concerned because there won’t be masks that the exposure likelihood is higher.”
Bergeson said, the school district does plan to continue notifying teachers as long as they have the information from the health department or from parents.
“Test to play” was a state-mandated program requiring students participating in extracurricular activities to receive COVID-19 tests every 14 days. “Test to stay” was an optional measure where schools with high rates of COVID-positive students were able to test all students choosing to attend in-person.
Bergeson said the district has no plans to continue test to play, and test to stay would only be considered when either 2% of a school’s population or 30 students (whichever comes first) are COVID-19 positive at the same time.
As of Thursday, Utah recorded over 1,000 cases in a day for the first time in five months. The state’s weekly positivity rate of 14.7% was the highest since February, according to data from the Utah Department of Health.
Washington County is currently experiencing high levels of COVID-19 transmission, meaning there are more cases per 100,000 residents than other areas and more patients with serious symptoms in local hospitals.
While public health agencies like the CDC and Utah Department of Health continue to urge all eligible people to receive the vaccine, the local school board remains divided as whether the district should recommend vaccination for its employees and students, Bergeson said.
“Between 75 and 80% of our teachers have chosen to be vaccinated, and about 20 to 25% have chosen not to,” he said. “Again, we have two diametrically opposed views on this thing. We just try and compromise and be as reasonable as we can to protect our kids.”
Even without a mandate or recommendation, that rate of vaccination would compare favorably with the overall vaccination rate for the state of Utah. As of Thursday, nearly 57% of Utah residents ages 12 and older were fully vaccinated, state data shows.
Children under the age of 12 cannot currently receive a vaccine for COVID-19, so the CDC recommends children wear masks and practice social distancing while indoors.
Without some of the precautions of last year, educators can still take small measures to improve their classroom’s odds of staying healthy. Teachers are just as divided as the general public about many of the big issues like masks and vaccination, Barton said, but generally agree on simple classroom-level policies.
“I know that many teachers are planning to continue a lot of the practices that we put into place last year,” she said. “Keeping those practices that are relatively low impact but high yield, like hand sanitization and increased distancing, will help us further our goal of keeping the kids healthy and safe.”
The school district plans to continue updating teachers and parents as policies change and the situation develops.
“The most important thing to the school district and the school board is what’s most important to parents, and that’s the safety of the children,” Bergeson said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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