High School Closures Around Utah

Madeleine Jameson

Since school started this fall, COVID-19 cases among Utah’s 15-24-year-olds have spiked more than those of any other age demographic. High schools that began this school year in person have already been forced to move online. Granger, Olympus, Bingham, Skyline, Cottonwood, Davis, and many other schools across Utah have closed due to high numbers of COVID-19 cases. All schooling in the Salt Lake City School District has been conducted online this year, so West, East, and Highland have not had any in-person education at all. It’s a different story in other Utah high schools, though. All other Utah school districts started this year in person—with social distancing measures in place. But, after a spike in COVID-19 cases, many of these schools shut down.

High schools have been the quickest to move online. Although elementary and middle schools around the state have also been conducting classes in person, there has been little increase in COVID-19 cases among 1-14-year-olds. Indeed, the 1-14-year-old age group in Utah has experienced only a 170% increase in COVID-19 cases since the start of school this year, compared to a 240% increase among 15-24-year-olds. This spike in high school-aged student cases has many potential causes, including extracurriculars, non-school related social gatherings, and schools simply not enacting enough precautions to prevent its spread.

Although no social events are being funded by schools this year, plenty of high school students have thrown events of their own. After Homecoming was canceled this year, many students set up their own dances. Since events like these are not school-regulated, there is no guarantee that social distancing procedures will be followed. Stephen Perschon, the Principal of Olympus High, says that, “Kids are doing an awesome job on campus. But those same groups of students hanging out together, either as a sports team or as a drama club or some other friend group, will then leave campus… You can sit at the campus exit and watch how fast those masks come off in the cars as soon as those kids leave school property.” Olympus High School has had to close multiple times this year already, and is currently completely online. “So that’s the most challenging thing that we are seeing, is that while it may not be happening on school property, it’s still impacting our schools.” All Utah schools that have been in-person this year have put in place mask mandates and social distancing procedures, but outside of school there is no way of knowing whether students will stick to these protocols.

Extracurricular activities are also a place that COVID-19 could spread among high schoolers. The Salt Lake City School District has put down guidelines for all high school sports that are taking place this year. These rules include players staying 6 feet apart and wearing masks when not actively
participating. All athletes also had to sign a form saying that, to their knowledge, they did not have COVID-19 and that if they believed they had COVID-19 at any point, they would not continue to go to practices. These precautions are helpful, but don’t consider high-contact sports or players who are asymptomatic. It is also up to coaches to enforce these guidelines: something which may not always be happening. According to Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, “Some of those precautions we take in the classroom are not being taken in extracurricular activities.” The presence of school sports and extracurriculars in high schools is one possible cause of the high number of cases in this age group.

It was recently announced that elementary schools in the Salt Lake City School District may open in-person in late January. This seems like a valid decision, since the number of cases in the 1-14 age range throughout the state is relatively low: especially considering that most elementary-age students are currently attending in-person school. Even with elementary schools likely opening soon in the Salt Lake City School District, it is still unknown when high schools in the district will open again. Between the already high number of cases in the high school age demographic and the fact that high schools have thousands more students than elementary schools, it might be a while before we see Salt Lake City School District high schools returning to in-person school.