After an explosion of COVID-19 cases among students this week, Utah leaders will now permit K-12 schools facing outbreaks to temporarily shift online.
State lawmakers 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 test supplies in the state, according to a letter released Thursday.
The announcement comes after the Legislature had previously banned public schools here from going completely remote for more than one day a week this academic year. Districts and charters have been required to offer at least four days of in-person instruction per week, even as hundreds of teachers have called out sick recently and absentee rates for students have climbed.
“The surge has challenged students’ learning and stretched educators thin,” state leaders wrote in the three-page letter. “At the same time, we have reached testing resource capacity, and statutorily required Test to Stay programs in schools are overextending those resources.”
According to the letter, schools facing outbreaks — or schools where officials decide “the risks related to in-person instruction temporarily outweigh the value” — can now move online for up to one week. That can start either Tuesday (after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday) or Monday, Jan. 24, with local school board approval.
The letter is signed by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Senate President Stuart Adams, House Speaker Brad Wilson and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson. Under the original bill banning extended online learning, SB107, those four are granted authority to make exemptions.
The announcement was met by a mix of responses from parents and teachers. Some cheered the decision, saying it is a necessary safeguard to protect students and gives overwhelmed staff time to regroup. Others worried about finding child care and a few questioned if the brief break would be enough to mitigate COVID-19 spread.
At least 26 schools hit the state-designated outbreak threshold in Salt Lake County this week, less than 10 days after students returned from winter break.
Four more in Davis School District and five schools in Alpine School District also hit the threshold, marking the most schools to ever do so at once in Utah. And some are documenting their highest case counts on record since the pandemic started. State health officials anticipated that spike.
On Thursday, the state reported the highest single-day count for coronavirus cases among school-age children at 3,007, which accounted for 23.1% of Utah’s record case count Thursday. Since classes started in August, more than 54,000 cases have been reported among kids in grades K-12.
‘Limited benefit’ with Test to Stay
Some districts are already moving ahead with a week of remote learning. According to the letter, they must ensure “sufficient measures” to prove they will return to in-person 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 middle school this week.
The decision to go remote, the district said, was based on “a rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in our schools, high student and employee absentee rates and staffing shortages.”
The break from in-person learning will give students nine days total away from the school, with weekends counted, which the district hopes will help reduce the spread of the virus before doors open again.
Jordan also had several Test to Stay events planned for its 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 parent permission once they hit the state-designated outbreak threshold. That is set at 2% of a student body in a school with 1,500 kids, or, for those with fewer students, 30 confirmed cases of the virus.
Those who test negative can continue attending 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 following five days, under updated isolation guidelines.
The Test to Stay events that occurred at two Granite School District high schools this week — Skyline High and Olympus High — both detected more than 200 asymptomatic cases in students. Granite’s school board also decided in a late emergency meeting Thursday that the district will move online for next week.
But as the letter from state lawmakers indicates, all Test to Stay events are suspended indefinitely, because there are not enough resources to continue testing the about 50,000 kids currently facing the requirement.
That will leave districts with some uncertainty over how to respond to outbreaks after their online breaks. For now, the letter only states that those experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 should stay home.
The state has about 41,000 to 44,000 available COVID-19 tests to administer per day, provided by the federal government. Even though Salt Lake County’s health department said this week that it had enough in storage to do Test to Stay, Utah leaders said they don’t want to prioritize schools with the testing supplies. And, regardless, having enough medical staff to conduct the Test to Stay events remains a concern.
The letter noted Test to Stay “draws heavily on limited state testing resources while having limited benefit,” especially with the faster spreading omicron variant. By the time a Test to Stay event can be scheduled, according to the letter, the virus has spread too far for it be effective.
Leaders say they want to instead use the supplies for testing at care facilities and community sites.
Wilson, R-Kaysville, the House speaker, nodded to that as well during a meeting with reporters Thursday.
“Test to Stay was meant to be an early intervention to help reduce the spread of COVID,” he said. “It worked really well for the first and second strains, but that’s not working with omicron.”
He added: “It’s really not the greatest and highest best use of our resources.”
When the session starts next week, Wilson said lawmakers will look at continuing that suspension of the program even longer or ending it entirely.
The letter from state leaders also notes that lawmakers will look to “provide clarity going forward” on when school districts can request an exemption so students can shift to online learning during an outbreak.
How parents and teachers reacted
Angela Shewan, who is currently pregnant and has two kids in Granite School District, said there are challenges with going remote. Both she and her partner work during the day, so helping her kids with online assignments isn’t easy to balance.
But she also has been worried about her children’s safety and the more contagious omicron variant. She believes the short break is warranted.
“There’s never been a time we need to flatten the curve more,” she said.
Liz Shellum also has kids in Granite School District — three in elementary school and one in junior high. Her oldest has gotten three notices of COVID-19 exposure in three days.
“I’d rather be home with my four kids doing online classes than be home with my kids because they are sick in bed,” she said of the breaks.
Shellum also said it’s a balance. She knows a lot of parents will have challenges with child care if schools go remote, as well as logistical concerns, including internet connectivity. She feels fortunate to have enough devices and to be home with her kids.
“It will be hard on teachers, and it will be hard on parents, and it will be hard on kids,” she said. “But with so many substitutes and sick kids missing class, we just aren’t going to have a productive learning situation until the surge is over.”
Some parents said they were planning to keep their kids home next week regardless, because of the surge.
Kristin Hessick, though, doesn’t believe 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 district. One of her girls is neurodivergent and does better with in-person school; the other girl is immunocompromised.
Hessick said she relies on her elementary school and after-school program for child care so she can work.
“No one will babysit, and I’m the sole income provider. I need a job to survive,” she said. “If people really love health care workers, please give us a way to care for our children while we work. … It feels cruel to shut down school and not provide an alternative option.”
Additionally, several teachers raised concerns about the challenges of pivoting to online. One said the transition is “very inconvenient.”
But districts also are battling teacher shortages, with more than 1,000 calling in sick in Salt Lake County on Monday alone. Bus drivers and lunch workers also are not showing up.
Some have tried to cater to both sides of the issue. For instance, Canyons School District will be remote for just one day next week (Tuesday), instead of five days; and it will offer lunch pickups for families who still need food that day.
Salt Lake City School District is similarly going online with its three high schools — East, West and Highland — on Friday and Tuesday (with Monday being a holiday). And its board voted late Friday to have all schools move online next week.
Nicholas Bielaczyc, a U.S. government and citizenship teacher at East High, said: “We really didn’t want to be here, but people, ignorance and stubbornness leaves us no choice.”
—Tribune correspondent Bryan Schott contributed to this story.