The Utah High School Athletics Association is six weeks into its football season after being the first state entity in the country to proceed with game play. As crowds file into stadiums to observe games, many schools have been met with scrutiny — and sometimes praise — for how well they are enforcing state health guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among attendees.
Weber High School faced criticism earlier this season after a Twitter account connected with the school, @WeberPrinicipal, tweeted photos and video of students packed tightly at its football game against Northridge High School. Many of the students were not wearing masks in the pictures, which have since been deleted.
“I’m not just talking about Weber here, it’s been something that has come up at a lot of different schools,” said Weber School District spokesperson Lane Findlay. “There have been some concerns raised about whether people are complying with state guidelines.”
Schools within the Weber School District have been given the reins to determine what policies they will implement to ensure crowds are adhering to requirements laid out by the Utah High School Activities Association. Ogden and Davis school districts, however, have uniform guidelines that apply to schools across their respective districts, although Davis schools can choose to adopt more stringent rules.
All Weber schools, as well as the Ogden School District, had to have their plans — all of which were obtained by the Standard-Examiner through a public records request — approved by the Weber-Morgan Health Department’s school team. The Davis School District meets with the Davis Health Department weekly to adjust its plan, according to the district’s Healthy Lifestyles Director Timothy Best.
At a minimum, the UHSAA requires that all spectators at football games bring a mask, which they must wear whenever they are within 6 feet of individuals from different households. It also mandates that all outdoor events have fewer than 6,000 attendees.
The latter rule is not an issue for any of the area schools — all stadiums seat fewer than 6,000 people and are operating at 50% capacity.
Mask and social-distancing requirements are where schools seem to struggle. Images show fans and students wearing masks below their noses or taking them off altogether, even when they are within 6 feet of people from other households.
“I think everyone is a little confused,” said Brandie Naylor, whose son Daygen Naylor plays on Roy High School’s football team. “They don’t know when they can take off their masks. Once seated, some people will take off masks, but there are always reminders over the speaker to have them on.”
While in some cases the lack of masks can be attributed to unclear messaging, few schools have defined plans for how to enforce social distancing and mask wearing.
The Ogden School District has left enforcement up to each of its two high schools — Ogden and Ben Lomond.
“If someone is not wearing their mask, it makes more sense for the school to immediately address that,” Ogden School District spokesperson Jer Bates said. He added that the district will back up any of its school administrators if there is a dispute over mask wearing.
Weber schools are also responsible for determining how to enforce state guidelines among spectators, said Findlay. Of the high schools in the district, Bonneville and Fremont did not have any provisions for enforcement in their plans. Roy’s said the school’s athletic director, Mike Puzey, would be responsible for oversight. Weber High School had the most fleshed out outline for enforcement, saying, “Faculty members will be positioned at the gates to ensure these directions are followed.”
The Davis School District has potential punitive measures for noncompliance listed in its plan. If the audience isn’t wearing masks properly, games may be delayed or suspended. It also says, “Compliance of (social distancing) expectations will be evaluated after every game/activity to determine future spectator admission.”
“You want your voice to be heard ... we just have to yell louder with those masks,” Best said. “The other alternative is Provo and Orem.”
After a surge in COVID-19 cases in Utah County, the state officially moved the area back to the “orange,” or moderate-risk, designation on Tuesday. Although Utah’s restriction guidelines state that communities in this category will not be allowed to “engage in sporting activities where teammates or opponents will be closer than 10 feet from each other,” it made an exception and will allow games to go on without spectators.
State guidelines for athletic events are intended to limit community spread of the virus. If someone who tests positive for COVID-19 does happen to attend a game, though, contact tracing is left up to schools, too.
“When someone tests positive, we ask them if they’ve been in a school in the last two weeks,” said Jenny Johnson, a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Health. “If they have, at that point we notify the school, and the school is in charge of determining who came in contact with that person and notifying those individuals.”
Many schools have been using online and prepaid ticketing to not only limit hand-to-hand contact, but also “helps us set up a structure for contact tracing,” Bates said. While some schools have been assigning each household to a specific section, others, like Roy High School, have narrowed seat selection down to a specific row.
Roy High School, according to its plan, also allows spectators to opt in to a contact tracing program via a QR code posted at entrances. Through the QR code, fans can enter contact information that the health department and school can use in the case that another fan tests positive for the virus.
While ticketing helps schools keep crowds socially distanced and create a mechanism for contact tracing, it also creates barriers for fans and students.
Earlier this season, Daygen Naylor suffered a concussion, sidelining him. His mom said he had to purchase one of a limited number of student tickets to attend games and could not join his team on the field to celebrate after games. In the games that he was medically cleared to suit up for, not all of his family was allowed to attend.
“I have three kids, and all three kids can’t go,” Brandie Naylor said. “We can’t ever go as a family.”
Although district officials sympathize with how the pandemic is affecting students and their families socially and emotionally, they say requirements are a necessary price to pay to keep community COVID-19 case numbers low and students safe.
“It hasn’t been an easy change — we’re used to showing up, sitting amongst friends, grabbing popcorn and a hot dog,” Best said. “So we appreciate the support of the community. It’s about protecting kids. We’re in the education business, so it’s all about them.”