Some Utah parents are reportedly endangering the health of others by refusing to test their children for COVID-19. Experts weigh in on the "mom code" and explain why testing and contact tracing are necessary to control the pandemic.

By Lisa Heffernan
November 13, 2020

Many families have coronavirus fatigue after practicing pandemic protocols for eight months, but some parents are reportedly refusing to test their children for COVID-19 in order to artificially keep the number of cases low and avoid closing the schools. Proponents of the so-called "mom code" encourage parents to keep their children at home if they have symptoms, but not to test them. Parents share messages on Facebook groups in Utah's Davis, Salt Lake, and Washington counties, which all have high positivity rates of COVID-19 infections.

"I [personally] think getting tested is selfish," posted one Utah parent, according to Salt Lake City's KUTV. "Because of the fact that they contact trace everyone so one person leads to 30 people that have to quarantine or worse, programs like athletics etc. are shut down … Stop the testing. Stop the contact tracing."

Conversely, state health officials are desperate to slow the spread of the virus in Utah as hospitals exceed capacity, and testing is a critical element of the response. "Identifying cases," Utah health officials told Good Morning America, "is a key strategy to limiting the spread of disease in our communities." Some Utah schools have now shifted to virtual learning and Governor Gary Herbert just declared a state of emergency with COVID-19 "spreading rapidly" through the state. Utah’s largest teacher union is also calling for Governor Herbert to move junior and high schools virtual. 

young girl about to get covid-19 test
Credit: Illustration by Francesca Spatola; Getty Images (1)

Why the 'Mom Code' Is a Problem

For school settings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all students who have any symptoms of COVID-19, or who have been in close contact with someone who has it, stay home from school and all other activities, and get tested for the virus.

"Testing determines whether a student has COVID-19 and how long they must be excluded from in-person school and activities," says Anne Kimball, M.D., M.P.H., a pediatrician on CDC’s COVID-19 Response Schools Unit. "[Testing] is also essential for contact tracing to stop outbreaks and slow the spread of the virus so that in-person activities can continue."

As daily cases of the coronavirus hit record numbers in the U.S., health experts are even more concerned that children could spread it in their communities. Infectious disease expert and professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, William Schaffner, M.D., says that while school district policies may differ, each student's behavior can affect the health and well-being of teachers, custodians, lunch workers, parents, and grandparents.

"If parents want to avoid testing their children in order to keep youth football going, they should rethink their priorities," says Dr. Schaffner. "Because COVID-19 is a community concern."

Frequent testing may prevent what happened in a Salt Lake City district high school, where the "mom code" was prevalent, and the coronavirus spiked out of control after schools reopened. Utah state health recommendations advise schools to go fully remote once they hit 15 cases within two weeks, but it wasn't until a teacher went to the intensive care unit and more than 70 students and staff members tested positive that the school closed for two weeks, reported the New York Times. The number of cases in the school was likely an undercount as not all symptomatic or exposed individuals were even tested. The Canyons School District didn't return's request for comment before publication.

This is in sharp contrast to other U.S. schools, including in New York and Connecticut, that will often transition to some form of remote learning when there are just single digits of known cases of COVID-19 in their district or county.

Safety Should Be a Priority

Some parents may want to keep their kids in school because they have to work and can't afford child care or tutors. It's a struggle many families across the country have been facing since the pandemic hit, and of course they need support.

"Societies need to shift to make it possible for kids and their families who've been exposed to the virus to stay home safely," says William Haseltine, Ph.D., scientist and author of A Covid Back to School Guide. "This requires community support and a system that allows families to isolate for the necessary length of time, without risk to their jobs, income, and livelihoods."

More funding is necessary for all schools to get—the more convenient and economical—saliva testing. But Dr. Schaffner also believes education on the virus is very important—including the importance of mask wearing, hand-washing, and staying six feet apart from others.

"In the end, it comes down to the responsibility of the parents and their children," says Dr. Schaffner. "If they want to continue to keep the schools open, they have to make changes in their lives."

Many parents are, fortunately, doing just that. When an outbreak of COVID-19 resulted from a party for high school soccer players in Rhode Island, Jennifer Connelly's son was identified as a close contact of someone who tested positive. She immediately got her son tested and said everyone that was contacted after the outbreak was more than willing to quarantine and have their kids tested.

Connelly, who says she hasn't heard of the "mom code" in Newport County where she lives, encourages other parents to take similar measures.

"It's unfortunate that these kids are missing out on a normal school year, but they are resilient, they will survive," says Connelly. "I just hope everyone opts to do the right thing and get this virus under control so we can return to some sort of normalcy."

The Bottom Line

No matter what your school's policy, it's a good idea to get tested before sending your kid back to school after showing symptoms of COVID-19. A few of those include fever, cough, nasal congestion or runny nose, new loss of taste or smell, body aches, vomiting, diarrhea, and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.