Q&A: 2021 School Health Considerations

Utah educators are increasingly concerned about how rising rates of COVID-19 in local communities will impact the return to school this fall. The UEA continues to advocate for the safety, well being and working conditions of all our educator members.
As with everything during this pandemic, information changes rapidly. The following Q&A provides some answers available right now:

What is the health guidance for schools this fall?

On August 2, the Utah Department of Health announced K-12 School Recommendations related to the pandemic. In short, these recommendations encourage a layered approach to prevention and mitigation of COVID-19 including:

  • Encouraging everyone 12 years and older to get vaccinated for COVID-19
  • Wearing a mask when indoors
  • Isolating at home if you test positive for COVID-19
  • Quarantine and other protective measures after a school exposure
  • Testing for COVID-19
  • Staying home when you’re sick
  • Physical distancing and cohorting
  • Improving or increasing indoor ventilation
  • Hygiene practices
  • Cleaning and disinfection

These recommendations shift responsibility for decision-making about masks, distancing, quarantining or other school protocols to local health departments, in conjunction with local school boards. State guidance reflects parent choice and individual responsibility.

Will there be school mask requirements in Utah?

Per legislative action earlier this year, only a local health department, with approval from county elected officials, can impose a mask mandate for schools. Local school boards cannot impose mask mandates (for school or activities). To date, only two health departments have requested a mask requirement for students in grades K-6, with one (Salt Lake County) rejected by the county council. In addition, CDC orders related to transportation require passengers and drivers on school busses (public and private) to wear masks.

What is the UEA’s position on school health requirements?

The doctors and health experts at state and county health departments are medical professionals hired by the public to provide their best recommendations for keeping the public safe. The UEA encourages elected officials, school administrators, parents and community members to follow the science as provided by these health experts.

UEA President Heidi Matthews issued the following statement regarding masks in schools: “As we begin a new school year, let’s be clear, teachers want nothing more than to be in-person with our students…without the need for masks. When our health experts make recommendations for how to keep our students in school, we should follow that guidance. The thought of once again riding the COVID roller coaster, bouncing back and forth from in-person to remote learning as happened in many schools last year, is more than most teachers can bear and very distressing for our students.”

What is the UEA doing to advocate for school staff and students?

The UEA Board of Directors, representing UEA members from across the state, continue to share concerns expressed by educators. Issues currently being addressed include communication with school districts, educator workload, workplace safety, well-being of educators, leave benefits, liability and more. The UEA is advocating for clearer state guidance on keeping school employees safe and is assisting local associations with ensuring proper protocols are established and followed, based on local needs. The UEA also represents educators in statewide health coordination and planning groups working to address community and school responses to the pandemic.

What are the Department of Health Recommendations?

View the complete Utah Department of Health K-12 School Recommendations at coronavirus.utah.gov/education. Here is a summary:

  1. If you test positive, quarantine at home for 10 days
  2. To better manage contact tracing, “exposure” to a COVID positive person includes all people who came in contact with a COVID-19 positive person through:
  • A shared classroom, or
  • In an indoor activity for more than 15 minutes, or
  • In an extracurricular activity.
  1. If there is a COVID exposure at school, an exposed student may stay in school if:
  • Vaccinated, or
  • both students were wearing masks, or
  • the exposed student had COVID in last 90 days, or
  • the exposed student was wearing a KN95 mask even if the other person wasn’t.
  1. Otherwise, the recommendation is to quarantine at home. There are several options for quarantining:
  • Quarantine at home for 10 days
  • Quarantine at home for 7 days, get tested and return if test is negative
  • Wear a mask at school for 10 days
  • Wear a mask at school for 7 days, get tested and no mask required if test is negative
  1. Legislation requires schools to offer 4-day per week in-person instruction option for students.
  • Test to Stay requirements and thresholds remain in place. Threshold for instituting Test to Stay is when 2% of people in a school of 1,500 or more test positive or 30 people in a school of less than 1,500 test positive in a 14-day window. Fully vaccinated employees/students don’t have to participate in Test to Stay.
  • If there is a health need to move a school to remote instruction temporarily, legislation requires the approval of Governor, President of Senate, Speaker of the House and State Superintendent.

What can local school districts and associations do?

Guidance from the Utah State Health Department shifted much of the responsibility for decision-making about things like masks, distancing, quarantining or other school protocols to local health departments, in conjunction with local school boards. Because of this shift, educators should seek district clarification on a few items. School district answers to these questions will go a long way toward easing some of the anxiety educators are feeling:

  • What recommendations from the recently released Utah State Department of Health guidelines are or are not being adopted and why?
  • What criteria will trigger the district to reconsider adopted recommendations as conditions change during the school year?
  • How will educators be notified if there is a positive case in their classroom?
  • What are the expectations for teaching both remote students and in-person students in the same classroom and is this a reasonable workload?
  • What are the expectations when a school employee gets sick? Are there enough substitutes available? Will educators be required to cover additional classes?
  • With the discontinuation of federal funds for COVID-related leave, what happens if a school district employee runs out of sick leave?
  • Will the district provide leave if an employee’s own child or dependent contracts COVID or must quarantine?
  • Do educators have the choice to impose preventative measures in classrooms that would decrease the chances of school absences (both students and their own)?
  • How will the district communicate COVID protocols to employees?

What state legislation impacts the 2021-2022 school year?

There are several state laws that will impact how school districts and health departments respond to COVID-19 during the upcoming school year:

  • Senate Bill 107
    • All schools in Utah are required to have at least 4 days of in-person instruction per week.
    • Test to Stay is required in K-12 schools. Testing events should be done in coordination with the local health department and are required to take place when a certain number of students test positive for COVID-19 in a 14-day window. Schools can request assistance from the Utah Department of Health for Test to Stay events.
  • Senate Bill 195
    • The Governor and Utah Department of Health must provide 24-hour notice to the Legislature before declaring a Public Health Emergency or issuing an Order of Constraint. An example of an Order of Constraint includes requiring masks to be worn by all students in schools.
    • A local health department must provide 24-hour notice to their county elected officials before declaring a Public Health Emergency or issuing an Order of Constraint.
    • The Legislature or elected county officials may overturn a Public Health Emergency or Order of Constraint at any time.
    • There is a 30-day maximum time limit on an initial Public Health Emergency or Order of Constraint. The Legislature or elected county officials must be provided 10 days notice if the DOH or LHD requests an extension of a Public Health Emergency or Order of Constraint.
    • All new Public Health Emergencies and Orders of Constraint must follow the requirements of Senate Bill 195.
  • House Bill 1007
    • Does not allow a local education agency, an LEA governing board, the state board, the state superintendent, or a school to require face masks to attend or participate in in-person instruction, LEA-sponsored athletics, LEA-sponsored extracurricular activities, or to be in any other place on the campus of a school or school facility.
    • Does allow for a private school to require face masks.
    • Does not allow an institution of higher education (like a college or university) to require a face covering to participate in or attend instruction, activities, or to be in any other place on the campus, except for a medical setting at an institution of higher education.
  • House Bill 308
    • A governmental entity can’t require a person to get a COVID-19 vaccine that was authorized for use under Emergency Use Authorization as a condition of employment, or to participate or attend an activity of the governmental entity.
    • This restriction would not apply to a COVID-19 vaccine that receives full authorization from the FDA.
    • Employees who work in a public health or medical setting can be required to receive COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use under Emergency Use Authorization.
  • Senate Bill 1001
    • Does not allow funding appropriated by the Legislature to be used for financial incentives, awards, drawings or prizes, or any similar incentive to anyone for receiving a vaccination.

Where can I find additional information?