Despite an outbreak, Kearns High will stay open under new testing pilot

Test to Stay program meant to prevent a shutdown amid a COVID-19 outbreak; Syracuse High also tried program but closed because of lower participation.

(Photo Courtesy of Granite School District) Students at Kearns High get tested for the coronavirus under the Test to Stay program run on Monday, Dec. 7 and Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.

Most Kearns High students will be able to continue attending school in person this week — despite a COVID-19 outbreak there — after piloting a new state program.

If a student agreed to take a rapid coronavirus test and the results were negative, they could head to class. If it came back positive or they declined to get tested, they were sent home. With nearly 70% participating, the district said Tuesday that it was a success, helping to avoid another shutdown.

“These results are really, really great,” said Granite District spokesman Ben Horsley. “It’s even better than we expected.”

The project, called Test to Stay, is an attempt to keep schools open even after they are hit by an outbreak. Kearns High is the second school to use it; the first, Syracuse High, decided to shut down when too few students signed up for a test.

Usually, the Utah Department of Health recommends that a school shift online for two weeks if there are more than 15 cases. But under the rapid testing program, the idea is to pull out those who have the virus and anyone they may have infected while letting everyone who doesn’t have COVID-19 continue going to class like normal.

Kearns High hit the 15 case threshold on Thursday — the second time it has this year after previously having to close its doors in October. This time, it began testing under the pilot on Monday and Tuesday (Fridays are virtual days each week for all students).

Students whose parents signed a permission form for them to get tested were called down to the gym in small groups to get a rapid antigen swab during the school day. They got results back in 15 to 20 minutes. Total, 1,080 at the school — including faculty — agreed to get a swab.

Of those, 11 students and zero teachers were positive (in addition to the 15 already out and isolating). That’s a 1% positivity rate, far lower than the statewide 27%, though all of the positive individuals at Kearns High were asymptomatic. They were instructed to isolate at home for two weeks, returning after their winter break.

The other 1,069 were allowed to go back to class and keep learning in person instead of having the whole school shut down again.

(Photo Courtesy of Granite School District) Students at Kearns High get tested for the coronavirus under the Test to Stay program run on Monday, Dec. 7 and Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.

“The results of this pilot provide a way forward to eliminate the disruption of dismissals and keep staff and students safe,” said Granite Board of Education President Karyn Winder in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

The students who got tested account for a little less than 70% of the 1,357 who are attending Kearns High in person or on a hybrid schedule this semester. Another 869 students are doing all online learning by choice, for a total student body of 2,226; those students in virtual classes didn’t need to participate in the testing.

Most of the 30% who didn’t get tested and do attend in person, Horsley said, simply didn’t respond to the parent emails asking for permission. Multiple notifications went out Friday, but not everyone responded. Those students will be instructed to either stay home for two weeks or to get tested at the Maverik Center, where any kid or teacher in K-12 can go.

Additionally, three families, Horsley said, declined to have their students tested, and they will be required to do virtual learning for two weeks, as well.

For teachers, the program is voluntary, but most participated.

The pilot at Kearns High is the second attempt at the Test to Stay in the state. It was previously conducted this week at Syracuse High in Davis School District. But administrators there decided to close.

Syracuse High wanted at least 80% of students to participate in order to stay open. They had 68%. That bar, though, was not a requirement by the health department.

The difference there is that teachers either instruct entirely in person or all online. So having more than an extra 20% of kids suddenly added to virtual classes would be a challenge.

But at Granite District, students can switch between online and in person with the same teacher, who instructs through both modalities. Horsley said that made it easier for Kearns High to conduct the pilot and remain open for those who tested negative and wanted to continue attending in person.

There was also strong opposition in Davis District, with some parents and students saying they didn’t have enough notice and questioning whether the tests were an invasion of privacy.

Logan Brimhall, a student at Syracuse High, said, “But I think they need to inform us better, because everyone was kind of like, ‘They’re testing us against our will.’”

Horsley said he didn’t hear much of that concern at Kearns High with the pilot, which is just starting in both the state and nation. The rapid tests are being provided by the federal government.

Most schools in Utah reopened this fall, largely at the encouragement of the governor.

Plenty of others will likely soon be candidates for the Test to Stay program. So far this fall, 78 schools have had at least one coronavirus outbreak and 13 others have shifted online to avoid one. In addition to Syracuse High, Rocky Mountain Junior High in the Weber School District announced Tuesday that it would be closing because of an outbreak. It didn’t hit the 15 case threshold, but was close with 12.

Bonneville High also closed this week.

(Photo Courtesy of Granite School District) Students at Kearns High get tested for the coronavirus under the Test to Stay program run on Monday, Dec. 7 and Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.