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Want info on COVID-19 at your child’s school? Good luck

Coronavirus cases present unique challenges for parents, health departments, schools

SHARE Want info on COVID-19 at your child’s school? Good luck
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Laura Francese dries her son, Dominic, 5, after his after-school shower at their home in Park City on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. Francese has her son shower every afternoon when he gets home from school. Dominic is a kindergartener at Jeremy Ranch Elementary School. Francese would like the ability to get general COVID-19 information about cases or outbreaks in schools. Currently there is no comprehensive information, although the state is working on a dashboard.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

PARK CITY — Laura Francese embraced her son’s first day of kindergarten with the joyful anticipation that accompanies such milestones.

But as little Dominic Francese starts school in the midst of a pandemic, these precious moments are also infused with anxiety.

And their situation is not unusual.

Parents across the state have expressed frustration that they’re trying to make educational decisions based on information that is often hard to find, nonexistent or constantly changing. While the state has plans to provide some school-related COVID-19 information on its website later this month, exactly what will be available is still being debated.

Meanwhile, parents are at the mercy of schools and school districts — most of which are choosing not to give parents information about their COVID-19 cases unless their children have been directly exposed.

The fallout has been a rampant rumor mill and widespread misinformation. The chaos created by speculation prompted at least two districts to release general information to patrons about specific cases. But as of Friday afternoon, there isn’t a place where parents can go to easily find basic facts about the number of coronavirus cases at a school, a district or even a county.

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Laura Francese buckles her son, Dominic, 5, into his car seat after a day of kindergarten at Jeremy Ranch Elementary School in Park City on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. Francese would like the ability to get general COVID-19 information about cases or outbreaks in schools. Currently there is no comprehensive information, although the state is working on a dashboard.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“I just want some transparency,” Francese said. “I’m not freaking out about COVID cases at the school. But I’d like to know so I can make some choices. ... That’s all, just some transparency.”

The Park City resident feels confident in the efforts made by her son’s school — Jeremy Ranch Elementary. She said they have done an excellent job putting measures in place to mitigate any issues, including spending money on upgrades to the school’s ventilation system.

“So far, it seems like they’re doing a great job,” she said, adding that she isn’t concerned with two or three cases, but if there were nine or 10, she might make different decisions.

But what Francese wants is what many parents want this school year, and that’s the ability to know if there are COVID-19 cases or outbreaks at their children’s schools. But that information is difficult to find in any form. The state offered detailed guidelines about how anyone exposed should be notified, but left no guidance as to how — or if — schools, districts or health departments should inform the general public of cases connected to schools.

Francese spent several days making calls, before getting a call back from a health department employee who quickly confirmed there were no COVID-19 cases at her son’s school.

“I finally did get some information,” she said. “I don’t understand why they wouldn’t want us to know if they’re concerned about safety. It is frustrating. I did not feel like anyone was hiding anything. What I gathered was that nobody knew what the protocol was going to be.”

While everyone she talked to was “nice,” and some even attempted to be helpful, she said it seemed that maybe they hadn’t considered how crucial it would be to keep parents informed of any COVID-19 cases connected to schools.

“There just isn’t that information out there,” Francese said. “If they’re taking all these precautions, then why aren’t (we) given the information (about outbreaks) so parents can make a choice. ... Then you start wondering, ‘Why isn’t this information available?’”

Dominic Francese gets into his mother’s car after school at Jeremy Ranch Elementary School in Park City on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. Parents have been asked to remain in their cars during pickup and drop-off at school. Francese’s mother, Laura, would like the ability to get general COVID information about cases or outbreaks in schools. Currently there is no comprehensive information, although the state is working on a dashboard.

Dominic Francese gets into his mother’s car after school at Jeremy Ranch Elementary School in Park City on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. Parents have been asked to remain in their cars during pickup and drop-off at school. Francese’s mother, Laura, would like the ability to get general COVID-19 information about cases or outbreaks in schools. Currently there is no comprehensive information, although the state is working on a dashboard.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Waiting for state site

The Deseret News contacted every local health department in the state to see whether they offer the public information about school-related cases or outbreaks. Currently, the state’s coronavirus website, coronavirus.utah.gov, has a page that lists cases associated with outbreaks, including those at schools. An outbreak is considered to be two or more cases reported from the same location (classroom, team, office, etc.) in a 14-day period.

So any school case that is not part of an outbreak is not included in that tally. And based on the numbers released by the three school districts just this week, the actual number of cases could be double the listed 140 cases related to outbreaks.

Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko said officials have been building the technological infrastructure necessary to share some of that information with the public on their website, but they’re still discussing with school boards and local health officials how detailed that information will be.

As of Friday, only the Salt Lake County and Southeast Utah health departments offer any information on school cases on their websites. They simply list the number of cases, but do not specify which school or district — information some parents say they’re desperate to have.

Three school districts — Alpine, Jordan and Granite — have announced they will be releasing COVID-19 case information each week with varying degrees of specificity.

Officials at most local health departments told the Deseret News they plan to utilize the state’s coronavirus website because they don’t have the technology or staff to build their own school-specific pages. In those cases, the health departments have, instead, focused resources on how they will handle cases that specifically come from schools, including how they will determine who is at risk and how they will be notified.

“We don’t have intentions right now on reporting that on our coronavirus website, at least at this point,” said Jonelle Fitzgerald, public information officer from Wasatch County Health Department.

Aislynn Tolman-Hill, public information officer for the Utah County Health Department, said it is leaving the release of any school-related cases to individual school districts.

“We’re following their lead,” Tolman-Hill said, noting her department doesn’t have the staff or technology to provide the information on its website. “We’re not releasing numbers for schools. ... If they decide they’re not going to release numbers, they probably won’t be available.”

She understand that the lack of information could fuel “the rumor mill.”

“It’s a very fluid situation that we’re all trying to wrap our minds and our hands around,” she said. “We’re putting a lot of stock into what the state dashboard will be able to do for us. We’ll all look to that to make informed choices for our communities and families.”

She, like others speaking for health departments that won’t release the information, said they will help investigate cases and will help notify individuals and families that have been exposed to COVID-19 cases.

Alpine, Granite, Jordan

The Utah County Health Department oversees three school districts — Alpine, Provo and Nebo. Only Alpine has released districtwide case numbers, and they were the first district to do so.

Earlier this week, district officials said 41 students and 26 employees had tested positive. Those numbers come from 91 schools and six district office facilities. They also labeled one school community a “high impact area” and instituted a hybrid of online and in-class school for Pleasant Grove High School beginning Thursday.

Jordan offered similar information Thursday night, which as of Sept. 2 included 20 active cases in the district. Of those cases, 19 were students and one was an employee.

Some parents expressed appreciation to receive that information.

“I think it’s very beneficial from the standpoint of trust,” said Brian Goeckeritz, who has two children attending classes in the Jordan School District. “There is a lot of mistrust right now with COVID.”

He and his wife said their children have benefited from attending classes in person, and the information gives them confidence in their decision to send them to school.

“If you don’t have the facts, you don’t know what to base your judgment on,” Goeckeritz said. “You don’t know for sure what’s going on, and you’re just shooting in the dark.”

The Jordan District also offered additional information that some parents felt was useful, including that 506 people and four full classes have been asked to quarantine.

On Friday, the Granite School District issued a statement and made a Google document public with a breakdown of coronavirus cases by schools that will be updated every Monday, according to district spokesman Ben Horsley.

“We believe this extra layer of transparency is critical in helping our parents make appropriate decisions for their kids,” Granite Board of Education President Karyn Winder said in the statement accompanying the announcement.

Horsley said only two of the district’s 68 cases, as of Aug. 30, “can be directly attributed to school.”

“We know they got it at school,” he said of the two cases. “Otherwise it’s, ‘I got it from my brother, my uncle, my friend.’ ... And these cases are just people who’ve been in our schools.”

Those studying online are also not counted, even if they’re students, because they don’t pose a risk to those attending classes in person, he said.

Southeastern Utah Health Department is one of two health departments that lists school-related cases on its website. They update those cases each day, usually at night after all reports have been verified, according to Brittney Garff, public information officer.

Some districts, including Weber School District, have offered information about a case or quarantine when it impacts a large number of students or staff.

“Right now, we’re handling it on a case by case basis,” said Weber School District public information officer Lane Findlay, who dealt with the quarantine of 100 students at Sandridge Junior High in Roy on this week — all stemming from a single confirmed case. “We do have to protect the person who tested positive. We have to be very cautious that we don’t provide information that might identify this person and violate their privacy.”

The Sandridge case led to more than 10% of the school being quarantined because they couldn’t pinpoint every exposure. For example, a student may ride a bus, have a physical education class with 35 kids and no seating chart, extracurricular activities and a crowded lunch period, making contact tracing next to impossible.

Weber-Morgan Health Department public information officer Lori Buttars said the Sandridge situation was unusual because of the difficulty in pinpointing which students or staff may have been in contact with the positive student for more than 15 minutes.

“I believe we do need to be nimble in our response, we need to act quickly and look at what’s happening in each situation,” Buttars said. “In the case of schools, we not only have the case itself to consider, but also their parents and possible siblings. It definitely requires a lot of teamwork.”

Contributing: Debbie Worthen