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Syracuse High shuts down after COVID-19 testing pilot program sees 68% student participation

One frustrated senior says it “seems like we’re guinea pigs” in the Test to Stay strategy.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Syracuse High School students file out of school on Monday. The Davis School District tried to avoid its second two-week shutdown due to COVID cases by administering rapid antigen tests to students and teachers, December 7, 2020. The school needed at least 80% of students to agree to the tests to stay open, but only 68% participated.

Logan Brimhall had every reason to participate in Syracuse High’s pilot program Test to Stay, which proposed giving students rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 after a school outbreak rather than shutting down in-person classes for two weeks.

She had one reason not to.

“It’s just kind of frustrating because it just seems like we’re guinea pigs,” she said, “and they didn’t necessarily think through this entire plan.”

Logan wasn’t the only one who thought that way. Syracuse needed 80% of its 2,226 students, or all but 457 of them, to agree to be tested to prevent its second shutdown in a month. It got 68%.

Administrators had hoped that under the pilot program, created with the help of the Davis County Health Department and the Utah Department of Health, they could charter a new path and sail into a smoother, less disjointed 2021. Instead, starting Tuesday, school buildings will be shut down for two weeks for deep cleaning. Virtual classes will begin Wednesday and, with their winter break starting the week after the quarantine ends, students won’t return to in-person classes until January.

For the same reason, no other school will probably be able to attempt the Test to Stay program until then either, said Chris Williams, a spokesperson for the Davis County School District.

“I’m sure there’s going to be some discussions tomorrow and in the next few days regarding whether this is something that can be used again down the road in the new year,” he said.

Logan, a senior who participates in theater, said she was up late Sunday trying to decide whether to get tested. If her high school goes virtual for the rest of 2020, the theater program’s holiday fundraiser will be canceled and, possibly, the musical it funds. In addition, testing students has already opened the door for kids to participate in extracurricular activities and sports, and it could eventually allow for more social functions — maybe even a senior prom.

Ultimately, though, she and her twin sister, Morgan, decided to stay home.

A major factor in the decision, their mother, Gretchen Brimhall, said, was the slapdash way they felt the school announced its participation in the pilot program. The school sent an email to parents late Friday afternoon, after its offices had closed. That left the entire weekend for concerned parents to try to find answers to their questions on the internet and in chatrooms.

(Screenshot from email) This email from Syracuse High School administrators, shared with The Salt Lake Tribune by a parent, describes the school's coronavirus outbreak and its Test to Stay program.

“It was almost like they’re conspiracy theories,” Gretchen Brimhall said. “Like, ‘They must have [let people know late] on purpose because it was after school on a Friday.’”

The school board approved the pilot program on Tuesday as an “in-case” measure. Students and teachers had just returned from the school’s first shutdown, which started Nov. 5, and Williams said the board had no idea that Test to Stay would be implemented so soon. Administrators made the call Friday evening after receiving a report that the school had 27 positive cases over the past 14 days, according to an email from principal Jed Johansen sent to parents Monday night. That far exceeds the 15-case threshold at which the state recommends a two-week shutdown.

Another 19 cases were found via Monday’s testing, an email to parents said.

After making the decision to try testing, administrators sent a detailed email to parents. It explained permission could be given electronically through a student’s myDSD account and that students would be pulled from classes according to the initial of their last name to be administered the test. The process should not take more than 15 to 20 minutes, and results would be known the same day, the email said.

The email did not include that the test would be given by nurses — 29 of them, provided by the school, the Davis County Health Department and the National Guard — or that they would be following HIPPA protocols, though that information was available on the district’s consent form. Those were two of the areas of most concern to parents who commented on the announcement on the school’s Facebook page. Another was the accuracy of the Abbott BinaxNow test provided by the state.

Brian Hatch, the director of health for the Davis County Health Department, said he suspected parents might be skeptical of the new strategy.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think there was value to it from a public health perspective. Obviously the school districts, they can see the value to it because it keeps [kids in the classroom],” he said. “What we need is the third part of this equation, which is parents to understand and to be willing to participate in it. And I think that might be one of our obstacles right now is there’s a divide between parents on ‘Should we be in?’ ‘Should we be out?’ ‘Should we be hybrid?’ Everybody has their own opinion. It’s really difficult to navigate multiple perspectives.”

Logan said she also took issue with all students being asked to return to school Monday. She said she worried about catching the virus from a classmate who might test positive later in the day. She said she also expected many of her classmates to become less cautious about wearing masks and sanitizing in coming weeks if they believed the school to be rid of COVID-19 carriers.

Still, she expressed hope her school administrators won’t give up on the Test to Stay program. But maybe they can wait until some other schools have seen it work, and maybe with more advanced notice.

“I think they could try this whole testing thing again,” she said. “But I think they need to inform us better, because everyone was kind of like, ‘They’re testing us against our will.’ Even parents are like, ‘How am I supposed to say yes to this when I don’t even know what they’re doing?’”

Plenty of other schools will likely be candidates for the Test to Stay program. So far this fall, 78 schools have had at least one coronavirus outbreak and 12 others have shifted online to avoid one.

In addition to Syracuse, Bonneville High in the Weber School District announced Monday that it would be closing because of an outbreak starting Tuesday. That closing follows the school’s first shutdown at the end of October.

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