Some Utah schools lost 40% of their in-person days this fall to COVID-19 closures

Auditors recommend embracing “Test to Stay” approach to keep more students in the classroom for in-person learning.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Syracuse High School students file out of school on Dec. 7, 2020 before it was shut down for two weeks due to an outbreak. A state audit recommends moving away from the 1% threshold for a "soft closure" after many schools had to close several times this fall.

Responding to frequent COVID-19 outbreaks, some Utah high schools ended up closing and reopening and closing so many times that students were out of the classroom and learning online for more than 40% of the fall semester.

That practice has effectively created “a revolving door” of instruction. And the state should adopt a new model to avoid the constant shutdowns and keep kids attending school in person as much as possible, concluded a new state report released Thursday.

“There’s got to be a balance between maintaining in-person instruction and stopping the spread of COVID-19,” said Darin Underwood, a manager with the Office of the Legislative Auditor General who oversaw the review.

The best solution, according to the report’s findings, would be to expand the “Test to Stay” program already piloted by some Utah schools. With that, students have the option to get a rapid test when there’s an outbreak. If they test negative, they can return to class. If they decline to get a test or test positive, they do their work online.

That helps more students stay and “enjoy uninterrupted learning” in the classroom, the report says, without sending everyone home.

The recommendation comes after a team of auditors examined the state’s current — and informal — “soft closure” policy that’s being used by most districts.

Under that, it was initially suggested by the Utah Department of Health that schools close for two weeks and shift to online learning each time there were more than 15 cases of the coronavirus among students and staff in a building. The hope was to reset and slow the spread.

A few weeks after most schools in the state reopened for in-person instruction in August, a handful hit that threshold. By November, more than 90 had, according Salt Lake Tribune data.

To limit the reach, the state then shifted the outbreak marker to 1% of a school’s population with a shut down for 10 days instead of 14. But schools, especially high schools with their larger student bodies, continued to hit it quickly and multiple times. Just since returning in 2021, nearly two dozen more schools have had outbreaks, The Tribune’s records show.

State auditors focused their attention on 20 high schools across three large school districts along the Wasatch Front. Of those, eight had one “soft closure” between the first day of school and winter break. Nine had two closures. And three had experienced three separate outbreaks.

One high school that they looked at ended up shifting online for 22 days out 50 possible in the first term, excluding weekends, holidays and pre-scheduled virtual instruction. That’s 44%. Another school missed 42% of its in-person days this fall with outbreaks.

Both of those schools had to “transition back and forth between in-person and virtual learning about every two weeks,” the report said.

Underwood added Thursday during a committee hearing: “We’ve seen such mixed results, at best, with soft closure.”

Part of that also happened because each school district took a different approach with soft closure. Because it was a recommendation from the health department and not a mandate, some districts didn’t adhere at all, such as Corner Canyon in Draper with its first outbreak. Others closed every time they hit 15 cases.

Some set their own higher thresholds for shutting down — such as 2% of a school population getting the virus — and others shifted to hybrid models, alternating in-person and online instruction whenever case counts got high, so the number of kids in a building would essentially be cut in half on a given day.

A few, such as some in Jordan School District, initially chose to close for a few days instead of two weeks.

Districts in more populated areas also tended to have more infections and closed more often than those in rural areas, the report found.

Another drawback to the soft closure model is that it only takes into account those at a school who likely experienced symptoms or otherwise went and got a test that came back positive. And it counted those up to 15 confirmed cases or 1%, depending on the model at the time.

That’s not a real infection rate. It’s an infection count — and an informal one at that. But schools shut down and all students are sent home to learn online regardless of whether they are sick or not.

That’s why the auditors recommend the “Test to Stay” program, which they call “a major improvement to the revolving door of soft closures.”

With that process, the idea is to test all of those who consent in a school building. Anyone who is positive or declines to get tested is pulled out while everyone who doesn’t have COVID-19 can continue going to class in person like normal.

They use rapid antigen tests, too, so the results come within 15 to 20 minutes. And it’s effective in catching asymptomatic cases that might have gone undetected.

A few schools have used it successfully, so far, to remain open. That includes Kearns High in Granite School District — the first pilot to work — and Alta High in Canyons School District, among roughly seven others, by The Tribune’s count.

Certainly, there are some drawbacks. Davis School District attempted it at Syracuse High in December. Administrators set their own bar to have 80% of students participate; any fewer, and the district said it wouldn’t have been worth it because half of students would be learning at home and half in the classroom — causing an issue for teachers trying to instruct both.

That was a concern also brought up by State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson, who worries the program might increase the demand on already-taxed educators. And Senate President Stuart Adams agreed during the committee hearing Thursday, saying “it could become a real burden” and might lead some schools to default to going online for two weeks.

With its first run, Davis District didn’t hit the participation bar it had wanted so it did close the school and shift to virtual instruction.

It’s making a second attempt at “Test to Stay” this week with Davis High; the results of that are not yet known.

There are enough testing supplies to carry it out effectively when there are school outbreaks, the auditors said. But one shortage might be staff to administer the tests. One district, it noted, used its own staff and might not have enough if more than one school is completing the program at the same time.

The auditors also suggest there needs to be a bigger effort to publicize “Test to Stay” so more parents know about it and opt their kids in. “A parental consent is required for students to participate, so making parents aware of the ‘Test to Stay’ program’s benefits is essential,” the state report says.

Dickson suggested a survey to identify what might be holding families back from signing up. Going in and out of school, she acknowledged, is “a significant issue.”

Richard Saunders, the executive director of the Utah Department of Health, told the committee his team is on board for changing the school outbreak guidelines and expanding the new program to more districts.

“It’s not perfect,” he said. “There are holes in it. But we need to keep learning. And we want to help them overcome any barriers.”

He and the report both concluded that in-person learning is the best for students’ education.