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Salt Lake City School District looks at COVID-19 infections in schools

SALT LAKE CITY – The Salt Lake City School District has held most of its classes online since March because of the high number of COVID-19 infections in both the city and county. 

But board members seem to be looking into whether more in-person classes can be held safely. 

Dr. Adam Hersh, the pediatric infectious disease specialist at Primary Children’s Hospital, told the board during a meeting on Tuesday that elementary school students do get COVID-19. 

However, there have not been any major outbreaks in Utah’s elementary schools so far, possibly because young children are more likely to wear a mask than other people. 

“Young children are entering school environments now asymptomatic. The real question is, what happens as a result of that?” Hersh said. “If our mitigation strategies are as good as we hope that they can be, transmission will be very rare.” 

Dr. Hersh believes children of all ages are learning good behaviors at school. 

“The attendance at school is teaching kids how to function during this pandemic. If we could live our lives outside of school the way that kids are living their lives in school, we would move the needle on this pandemic in a big way,” Hersh said. 

He also believes it’s easier for young children to go back to school safely because they’re more supervised, with teachers and others showing them how to wear masks. 

“Generally, elementary-aged students don’t have school-associated extracurricular activities, and they’re much more supervised. And, so, as a result, the ability to apply mitigation strategies nearly universally is much easier,” Hersh said. 

It’s a different story for high school students. 

Health officials say young people between the ages of 15 and 24 have been the catalyst for Utah’s recent surge in positive COVID-19 tests. 

Dr. Hersh believes that high school students are not getting infected with COVID-19 during school activities. But they tend to not wear masks as often when hanging out with their friends. 

The Salt Lake City School Board has recently been under pressure from some parents who want more in-person classes. They argue online learning has been detrimental to children’s educational opportunities and mental health, especially in low-income communities. 

Attorneys for a few parents recently sent a letter saying they may sue the district for more in-person classes. 

Regardless of any changes the Salt Lake City School Board makes in the future, one key to opening up may be encouraging more students to get flu shots. 

Dr. Hersh pointed out that New Zealand and Australia had almost no cases of the flu this year, which helped in the fight against COVID-19.

“If we can reduce the frequency with which people get symptoms from any other virus, for example, influenza, the disruptions will be fewer and, of course, in the final sort of cascade, the strain on health care systems will be mitigated,” Hersh said.