SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Utah’s epidemiologist says parents have a choice: if their child is exposed to COVID, the student can either quarantine or wear a mask in school.

The guidelines, outlined before the State Board of Education Thursday, are meant to contain the virus from spreading inside schools — but the wiggle room is to allow districts across the state to make local decisions.

“This allows people to come back to the classroom, with masks on, even if they’ve been exposed to COVID. And I’ll point out that’s not when they have COVID, only when they’ve been exposed to COVID,” said Dr. Leisha Nolen, Utah state epidemiologist.

Nolan outlined the disease plan — not a legal mandate, but the official health department recommendations — to the state’s education board Thursday. The first choice, she said, is for exposed students to quarantine at home for 10 days. After seven days, students have the option to test negative and return to school.

But this year, she says, districts across the state will make decisions around their own communities. Nolan says the guidelines are meant to help facilitate those decisions.

“I think everybody’s frustrated how often things are changing. But, unfortunately, this virus changes on us. It’s not our choice to have things change, the virus is changing and making us change,” said Nolan.

And the virus is affecting children, she said. Compared to last year at this time, cases among those 0-18 have doubled. By October, she told the board, daily case rates could quadruple the current numbers.

The only time masks are required, as per the CDC, is on the school bus. Students and bus drivers must mask, according to the federal rules.

But once in school, Utah’s mask ban means that students won’t be forced to wear masks. Nolan says the exception would be if they’ve been exposed.

“We consider someone exposed at school, specifically someone who has shared a classroom, an activity indoors for more than 15 minutes, or an extracurricular activity indoors for more than 15 minutes,” said Nolan.

She also explained that COVID has had a real impact on kids: since the pandemic started, 752 children have been hospitalized with complications from COVID. More than 82,000 cases have been reported.

“These kids are being affected, there’s no question,” said Nolan.

Nobody knows for sure when vaccines might be available for those under 12, she told the state school board. Currently, about 40% of 12-18 year olds in Utah have at least one dose of the vaccine.