Under the strong push of teachers and doctors, New York State withdrew its controversial school guidelines, which allowed Utah students to attend classes even in the case of direct exposure to COVID-19.
The move to abandon the so-called “modified quarantine” policy took place on Thursday, just a week after Governor Gary Herbert and the Utah Department of Health first announced the policy. Now, students who have been in close contact with the infectious virus will be required to follow “standard isolation practices”
“We have listened to the feedback,” Dr. Angela Dunn, an epidemiologist in the state, said at a virtual press conference on Thursday. “We are willing to adjust and provide stricter recommendations.”
Dunn has said before that the “modified quarantine” rule is something important workers in the state are already doing. Like them, as long as they are asymptomatic and no one in their immediate family is positive, students and teachers can attend classes after contact.
Encouraged by the governor, the guide is part of a 102-page manual for schools that will reopen this fall.
However, the Utah Education Association, the largest teacher union in Utah, immediately opposed this policy, saying it would not help ensure the safety of educators. Due to age or health, most teachers are more likely to suffer serious complications from the virus than the children they supervise. UEA President Heidi Matthews said at the time: “This does not solve our concerns.”
She called on all schools in the state to go online this month. She was supported by teachers from all over the state, and they rallied for their safety. On the lawn of the Capitol and outside the district council meeting, they held up signs and asked: “Can you sleep at night when students and teachers are sick and die?”
The doctor also jumped in.
Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease doctor at Intermountain Healthcare, said opening a classroom is “very dangerous.” Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, head of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Utah Health University, said he has serious doubts about the reopening plan.
On Tuesday, Swaminathan specifically announced a “modified quarantine” plan, saying he was worried that it would lead to a serious outbreak and further spread of the coronavirus. He added that there was “essentially no quarantine”, especially because even infected children may be asymptomatic. He said this may mean that an outbreak can only be detected if older people in the same circle contract the disease.
He added that after close contact with COVID-19 cases, quarantining individuals at home is one of the best ways to control the spread. Swaminathan said in an online discussion: “This is the whole principle of controlling this outbreak.”
The state initially proposed this setting, hoping that it will allow more students to attend classes in person and focus on their education. The “modification” was made because they can go to school but cannot participate in sports or other activities outside the home, so they must wear masks.
According to the updated rules, this will no longer be allowed. Anyone who has been in close contact with the coronavirus (defined as more than 15 minutes within 6 feet of a person) should stay at home for the entire 14-day incubation period. It doesn’t matter where the exposure occurs.
Dunn said that this change “is still in line with good public health habits.” The state’s school online manual has also been updated.
It now reads: “Even if the student has never been sick or tested negative, he or she must complete a 14-day quarantine.”
In addition to this adjustment, the state also said that it has also heard from some teachers that they are worried that they do not have enough protective equipment and will now also provide such protective equipment. Herbert said at a press conference on Thursday that Utah’s unified command team will create packaging that includes five N95 masks and two plastic face masks for every educator and school staff in the state.
Herbert said: “All teachers, staff, bus drivers and administrators can use them.” He pointed out that no one has to buy them themselves.
Packages will be sent to all 41 public school districts and all charter schools. Herbert expects a total of 28,000 teachers and 16,000 staff will be acquired.
Herbert also clarified on Thursday that although he strongly encourages this, he cannot order the school to reopen. In late May, the governor first instructed the regions to welcome students back this fall. He said that under his guidance, there is nothing to prevent this from happening.
He added on Thursday: “We are very eager to reopen our school.”
Herbert continued: “I had hoped that the school would be open.” “I had expected the school to be open in some form or way.”
However, the decision on how to do this is left to the individual school districts. For example, schools in Salt Lake City will start online.
When the pandemic started here, the school first closed in March and classes were moved online. Since then, there has been an ongoing issue of fairness so that all students can log in. For this reason, some people asked the school to reopen. The governor also participated in the conference call, but said that all regions should also provide online courses for those who do not want to return.
He said: “Parents have the right to expect their children to return to a safe environment.”
The Salt Lake Tribune will update this developing story.