After an explosion of COVID-19 cases among students this week, Utah leaders will now allow K-12 schools affected by outbreaks to go online temporarily.
State legislators are also recommending a suspension of mandatory testing for students in schools with an outbreak – known as Test to Stay — due to a critical shortage of limited testing supplies in the state, according to a letter released Thursday.
The announcement comes after lawmakers had previously banned public schools here to go completely remote more than one day a week this academic year. Districts and charters are required to offer at least four days of in-person instruction per week, even as hundreds of teachers have called in sick recently and absenteeism for students has risen.
“The wave has challenged student learning and stretched educators,” state leaders wrote in the three-page letter. “At the same time, we have reached the capacity of testing resources, and the legally mandated Test to Stay programs in schools are overloading those resources.”
According to the letter, schools dealing with outbreaks — or schools where officials decide “the risks of in-person instruction temporarily outweigh its value” — can now go online for up to a week. That could begin Tuesday (after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday) or Monday, January 24 with approval from the local school board.
The letter is signed by Utah Governor Spencer Cox, Senate President Stuart Adams, House Speaker Brad Wilson and State Superintendent of Public Education Sydnee Dickson. Under the original bill banning extended online learning, SB107, those four will be given the power to grant exemptions.
The announcement was met by a mix of reactions from parents and teachers. Some welcomed the decision, saying it is a necessary safeguard to protect students and gives overwhelmed staff time to regroup. Others were concerned about finding childcare, and a few questioned whether the short break would be enough to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
At least 26 schools reached state-designated outbreak threshold in Salt Lake County this week, less than 10 days after the students returned from the winter break.
Four more in Davis School District and five schools in Alpine School District also hit the threshold, marking most schools that ever did this in Utah at once. And some are documenting their highest number of recorded cases since the start of the pandemic. State health officials anticipated that spike.
On Thursday, the state reported the highest single-day number of coronavirus cases among school-age children at 3,007, accounting for 23.1% of Utah’s record number of cases Thursday. Since classes began in August, more than 54,000 cases have been reported in children in grades K-12.
‘Limited advantage’ with Test to Stay
Some neighborhoods are already making progress with a week of distance learning. According to the letter, they must provide “sufficient measures” to prove that they will return to personal learning after that time.
Jordan School District announced in an email to parents shortly after the state announcement Thursday that it will have virtual classes next week. The district saw outbreaks at six of its high schools and one high school this week.
The decision to move away, the district said, was based on “a rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in our schools, high student and employee absenteeism and staff shortages.”
The hiatus from personal learning will give students a total of nine days away from school, including weekends, which the district hopes will help reduce the spread of the virus before doors reopen.
Jordan also had several Test to Stay events planned for his schools this week. But most of those have now been canceled by the state.
Under Test to stay, schools are supposed to test all students with parental consent once they reach the state-designated outbreak threshold. That’s set at 2% of a student population in a school of 1,500 children, or, for those with fewer students, 30 confirmed cases of the virus.
Those who test negative can continue to take the class in person. Those who test positive or refuse to test must stay home for five days and then, when they return, must wear a mask for the next five days, according to updated isolation guidelines.
The Test to Stay events that happened at two o’clock Granite School District high schools this week — Skyline High and Olympus High — both found more than 200 asymptomatic cases in college students. The Granite school board has not yet decided whether the district will go online, a spokesperson there said on Thursday.
But as the letter from state lawmakers points out, all Test to Stay events will be suspended indefinitely, as there are not enough funds to continue testing the approximately 50,000 children currently facing the requirement.
That will leave districts with some uncertainty about how to respond to outbreaks after their online breaks. For the time being, the letter only states that people with symptoms of COVID-19 should stay at home.
The state has approximately 41,000 to 44,000 available COVID-19 tests to administer per day, provided by the federal government. Although the Salt Lake County health department this week said it had enough in storage to do Test to Stay, Utah’s leaders said they don’t want to prioritize schools with the testing supplies. Regardless, having enough medical personnel to run the Test to Stay events remains a concern.
The letter noted that Test to Stay “relies heavily on limited state testing resources while having a limited benefit,” especially with the faster-spreading omicron variant. By the time a Test to Stay event can be scheduled, the virus has spread too far to be effective, according to the letter.
Leaders say they want to use the supplies for testing in healthcare facilities and community sites instead.
Wilson, R-Kaysville, the house speaker, also nodded to that during a meeting with reporters on Thursday.
“Test to Stay was intended as an early intervention to help reduce the spread of COVID,” he said. “It worked very well for the first and second species, but it doesn’t work with omicron.”
He added, “It’s really not the best and best use of our resources.”
When the session opens next week, Wilson said lawmakers will look at whether the program’s suspension can continue for any longer or be terminated altogether.
The letter from state leaders also notes that lawmakers will try to “provide clarity in the future” about when school districts can apply for an exemption so students can switch to online learning during an outbreak.
How parents and teachers reacted
Angela Shewan, who is currently pregnant and has two children in the Granite School District, said it is difficult to go far. Both she and her partner work during the day, so helping her kids with online assignments isn’t easy.
But she is also concerned about the safety of her children and the more contagious ommicron variety. She believes the short break is justified.
“There’s never been a time when we had to flatten the curve more,” she said.
Liz Shellum also has children in Granite School District – three in elementary school and one in high school. Her oldest has received three reports of exposure to COVID-19 in three days.
“I’d rather be at home with my four kids taking online classes than being at home with my kids because they’re sick in bed,” she said of the breaks.
Shellum also said it’s a balance. She knows many parents will have childcare issues as schools go remote, as well as logistical issues, including internet connectivity. She feels happy that she has enough appliances and is at home with her children.
“It will be difficult for teachers, and it will be difficult for parents, and it will be difficult for children,” she said. “But with so many substitutions and sick kids missing class, we just won’t have a productive learning situation until the wave is over.”
Some parents said they were planning to keep their children at home next week because of the waves.
However, Kristin Hessick does not believe that state leaders considered all parents, especially single parents and women, when they made their decision. She works full-time in patient care in Salt Lake City, while her two daughters, ages 6 and 8, attend school in the capital. One of her girls is neurodivergent and doing better in personal school; the other girl is immunocompromised.
Hessick said she relies on its primary and after-school care for childcare so she can work.
“No one will babysit, and I am the sole income provider. I need a job to survive,” she said. “If people really love health workers, please give us a way to take care of our children while we work. … It feels cruel to close the school and not offer an alternative option.”
In addition, several educators have expressed concern about the challenges of the move to online. One said the transition is “very inconvenient”.
But districts are also struggling with teacher shortages, with more than 1,000 sick in Salt Lake County on Monday alone. Bus drivers and lunch workers also do not show up.
Some have tried to solve both sides of the problem. For example, Canyons School District will be remote for just one day instead of five days next week (Tuesday); and it will offer lunch pick-ups for families who still need food that day.
Salt Lake City School District similarly goes online with its three high schools — East, West and Highland — on Fridays and Tuesdays (with Monday being a public holiday).
Nicholas Bielaczyc, a US government and citizenship teacher at East High, said, “We really didn’t want to be here, but people, ignorance and stubbornness leave us no choice.”
—Tribune correspondent Bryan Schott contributed to this story.