Wary of angry parents, this Utah school told teachers not to confront students who came to class after refusing COVID testing

Some districts are leery or unsure about enforcing Test to Stay, but the state says they have the authority to do so.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jen Avery tests a student for COVID-19 at a Test To Stay event at American Preparatory Academy in Draper on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. While some school districts are leery or unsure about enforcing Test to Stay requirements during an outbreak, the state says they have the authority to do so.

To protect staff from angry parents, teachers at Tooele High School were instructed last week not to confront any students who had refused to get tested for COVID-19 but showed up to class anyway, in defiance of outbreak rules.

The direction from administrators came after the school in western Utah hit the designated level for a COVID-19 outbreak on Sept. 14. At that point, all students are supposed to be tested for the virus, under the state’s required Test to Stay program.

Kids who test negative can return to class to continue learning in person. But those who test positive or refuse to test are, by law, ordered to stay home and out of school for two weeks.

At Tooele High, which sits in a more conservative area of the state, one teacher said there was enough concern about pushback over the policy set by the Utah Legislature that the principal told staff to avoid calling out any students who came to class when they were not supposed to.

“Admin told us in a faculty meeting that if a student refused testing and showed up to class, we were to not send them out,” the teacher said. “Do not create a scene. Let them stay in class.”

The Salt Lake Tribune verified the person is a teacher at the school but agreed not to identify them because they fear repercussions for speaking out. The teacher said administrators noted the instructions were given due to concerns about putting educators at risk for enforcing the policy.

A few parents, the teacher said, have been upset by the regulations with the pandemic. And school leaders were worried about how those parents might react if their child was taken out of a classroom over not testing.

The instructions for staff were confirmed by Tooele County School District spokeswoman Marie Denson on Wednesday.

“The administration tried to protect the teachers,” she said. “They were asked to not engage because the teachers’ focus should be on education.”

Denson said students whose families opted out of COVID-19 testing were marked on attendance sheets as being excused from class. If teachers noticed one of those students in class anyway, they were instructed to notify the administration rather than say anything to the child. The principal then contacted parents, Denson said, to address the problem.

She added: “Often, it’s just a misunderstanding. Sometimes, it’s a difference of opinion that needs to be worked through. But we didn’t want teachers to have to deal with that.”

The situation at Tooele High is the latest in a series of confrontations with parents this school year as COVID-19 continues to impact education, and as some districts and charters feel their hands are tied with enforcement of safety measures. The state has prohibited schools from creating their own mask mandates, for instance.

That has been celebrated by many right-leaning parents, who say it is their right not to send their kids to school in a mask. Some also say it is their right not to have their child tested for COVID-19.

The state agrees with them to a point. The law on Test to Stay does allow them to refuse getting a test. But it does state that only those “who test negative for COVID-19 [get] to attend school in person” when there is an outbreak.

The governor’s office, the Utah Board of Education and the Utah Department of Health all confirmed to The Tribune that the law is set on that. So refusing to test means not being able to attend school for 10 days.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, in particular, has previously said: “If a parent chooses not to let their child be tested for COVID-19 … that parent is also choosing remote learning for their child.”

That does not mean confusion hasn’t still persisted.

In Salt Lake County, there has been one school — American Preparatory Academy’s Draper 2 campus — that has hit the threshold for an outbreak this fall and needed to conduct a Test to Stay event.

For schools with fewer than 1,500 students, the outbreak level is reached when a school has had 30 students test positive within a 14-day period. For schools with more than 1,500 students, it’s when 2% of the student body is infected.

American Preparatory Academy’s Draper 2 campus had more than 700 of its 1,200 students participate in Test to Stay and found an additional 26 cases. That means, though, that more than 400 students refused to test and are not supposed to be allowed to attend classes for two weeks.

A few parents reached out to The Tribune expressing concern that the academy wasn’t enforcing that.

The director of the charter, Carolyn Sharette, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But one parent forwarded an email that Sharette sent them, acknowledging she wasn’t sure the school could keep students out after refusing to test.

“Enforcement is an open question, and we are working to determine if we have the authority to enforce,” she wrote. “Before APA denies access to a student whose parents do not consent to test, and before APA puts itself in a vulnerable legal position, I feel it is worth exploring and fully vetting this issue.”

Nicholas Rupp, the spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department, said the department is reaching out to the school and others to assure them that they have the power to keep kids out of school over not testing.

“It’s very clear that you are required to test to stay in school. It’s in the name: Test to Stay,” he noted. “That’s the law.”

He said with each Test to Stay event, schools are given a list of students who test positive or refuse to test “so they can keep them out. Rupp added: “The school should be aware of which of their students need to isolate or quarantine.”

At Tooele High, Denson said, it was not a matter of whether the law would be enforced, but rather who was doing the enforcing. She said the district didn’t want teachers in that position. It was still following the law, though.

In the end, only one student showed up at Tooele High who had refused to test. The teacher informed an administrator, who called the student’s parents. Denson said the student was later tested at a separate facility and allowed back in with negative results.

Tooele and APA are among five Utah schools in total that have hit the outbreak threshold so far this fall. The other three are: Syracuse Elementary and Antelope Elementary in Davis School District and Mountain Crest High in Cache County School District.

The spokespersons for both districts said they intend to enforce the law, as well, and require students stay home if they decline to be tested.

Like Tooele, Davis also had one student show up who refused a test. The parents were called in.

At Mountain Crest, several parents were noting on Facebook that they would send their kids anyway because “the school won’t be having police officers at the doors enforcing it,” one said. Spokesman Tim Smith said the school would have a list of those who declined to test and send any home who showed up anyway.

Some, including the Concerned Coalition — a group of parents who have filed a lawsuit against the state for not protecting students from COVID-19 this school year — wrote in a letter to the governor that they are frustrated by the situation. They feel there are no penalties for schools or districts that don’t comply with the Test to Stay requirements.

They believe it makes the program pointless if students can show up without testing.

In her own letter to the governor, state Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, who is also a physician, added: “I’ve heard many reports of districts ignoring the state law regarding ‘Test to Stay’ and not actually requiring testing for kids to physically attend school as the law requires. What is being done about this?”

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.

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