Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.
Granite School District has launched a new dashboard that shows where its students and staff are testing positive for the coronavirus.
At Granger High, for instance, which is the largest high school in the state, there were eight active cases as of Monday; that’s the highest total for any school in the district. The biggest for a middle school, meanwhile, is three cases at Matheson Junior High. And four elementary schools all report having two confirmed cases.
It is the most detailed data yet that any district in the state has publicly provided. The hope, said spokesperson Ben Horsley, is that parents will have the information they need to decide whether they want to send their kids to class.
“This can reassure families and help them choose to do in-person instruction or distance learning, if that’s what they’re more comfortable with,” Horsley added.
But even with so many returning, Horsley said he is optimistic about the overall numbers. Granite is the largest district in Salt Lake County — with 67,000 students — and the case count is a sliver of a percent of that. It is even smaller when you factor in the more than 4,000 teachers.
“We’ve known the whole time we were going to have cases in schools,” Horsley said. “We’re looking at being a little more transparent about it, though.”
Overall, 32% of the 87 schools in Granite have at least one case. That leaves 59 schools with zero reported. In a further breakdown, there are:
• Sixteen cases spread over eight high schools;
• Nine cases in 15 junior highs;
• Nineteen cases in 60 elementaries;
• Two cases in four specialty schools.
Most of those, too, are coming from community transmission and not spread within the school, Horsley said.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean that cases won’t increase. And some schools already are seeing high levels. While Granger High shows eight cases of COVID-19 on the dashboard, it actually is now at 11, Horsley noted.
The dashboard will show the total active case count reported by the Salt Lake County Health Department at the end of every week, and updates will be posted on Mondays for parents. So by Aug. 31, Granger High had eight cases. As the week has gone on, three more were reported.
That puts the high school the closest in the district to the recommended threshold to dismiss classes.
To slow spread, the state’s health department has advised that schools should close after 15 individuals have tested positive and their cases appear to be connected. And then, students should do their work online for two weeks, the incubation period of the virus. (For a single classroom, there needs to be three people with COVID-19 in the same time frame for a switch to remote instruction.)
Horsley said the district is actively monitoring that. It also is quarantining students and staff who have been in close contact with one of the reported cases — defined as within 6 feet of an individual with the coronavirus for more than 15 minutes.
The district isn’t including the number of students quarantined on the dashboard. But, during a meeting of the district’s board of education this week, staff estimated it’s around 200 or more.
When a student is asked to quarantine, their family is directly notified. The district also is sending a letter to parents if their kid is in a classroom with someone who tested positive, even if they were not in close contact, just as a precaution. But that means if there is a case in a school and a child wasn’t in the same room, a family wouldn’t have known about it — until now with the dashboard.
The Utah Department of Health has anticipated releasing a similar dashboard to show cases in schools statewide, but those efforts have been delayed due to the time it takes to develop the system, said Tom Hudachko, a spokesperson for the department.
“We’re still probably a few weeks out on having a public-facing dashboard for schools,” though, Hudachko said.
That has left which information on school coronavirus cases in Utah is being released largely to the discretion of individual districts, which have largely erred on the side of privacy.
But members of the Granite school board said during their meeting Tuesday that they didn’t want to wait to be transparent about what was happening in schools. Karyn Winder, the board president, said the “rumor mill has been rampant” about spread, and there’s a large difference between one case and 15 cases. If a school is going to shut down, she believes, parents should know ahead of time.
“It just seems wrong to withhold that data,” she added, after the superintendent said the district needed to work with the health department on releasing it.
Member Todd Zenger said, too, that he wanted to provide the numbers to help parents be more vigilant. Granite District is one of the most diverse in the state, and it includes several of the most heavily impacted zip codes for those getting sick from the coronavirus. Providing information helps schools be “data-driven,” he said, as the district is always promising to be.
Horsley noted that the district had already been working on the dashboard, and it got the go-ahead from the health department to publish that Thursday evening.
The data is broken down by the number of cases at each school. And it includes the percentage of the population of students and staff there who are infected. It also lists how many classrooms have been totally quarantined. For Granite, it’s one. For nearby Jordan School District, which sent an email to parents Thursday, it’s four; it also has 20 active cases.
Likewise, Alpine School District has reported 67 active cases over its 91 schools. But neither Jordan nor Alpine is releasing what schools those are occurring in (other than one in Alpine — Pleasant Grove High School — moving to a hybrid model because of a “cluster” there). Meanwhile, two charters have closed.
The president of the state’s largest teachers union said Thursday that she wants to see more transparency like Granite’s approach. Heidi Matthews and the Utah Education Association are pushing for a statewide mandate for all districts to release their numbers.
“It should be part of an overall plan,” Matthews said, “to keep our kids safe and reduce the risk for our educators.”