Utah legislative leaders and the governor will now get to sign off on individual school closings for COVID

Some districts say the new process is too complex and time-consuming to be helpful.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cyprus High School, on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. To go online, a Utah school will now need the signoff of four state leaders, under a bill passed by the Legislature on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.

If a Utah school wants to shift online during a COVID-19 surge, it’s going to have to follow a new and lengthy process — which includes getting approval from the governor.

Under HB183, which got final approval from lawmakers on Monday, a school that reaches the state’s threshold for an outbreak will first have to appeal to the district’s local school board, asking that students be allowed to learn remotely.

The school board will then need to hold a public meeting to vote on whether to take that action. If the members vote in favor, they’ll next have to ask for permission from the state. Their request must stipulate the “specific and temporary period of time” the school would be learning virtually and outline the measures they’ll take to return to in-person instruction.

After that, approval to go online will require signoff from all four of the top-ranking leaders in Utah: the governor, the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate and the state superintendent. It’s unclear how quickly those leaders can or will respond to a request, but their decision will have to be unanimous.

Only then, if they’ve gotten the OK, can schools tell families that they’re moving to online learning.

The final version of the multistep requirements were approved with a 55-16 vote in the House. But the new process is causing concern among districts that say they have to be able to act nimbly to control the spread of the coronavirus in the classroom. They fear, with this setup, that they won’t be able to.

“This is very cumbersome,” said Ben Horsley, the spokesperson for Granite School District. “I think it doesn’t take into consideration the dynamic nature of these situations.”

The bill now goes to Gov. Spencer Cox to sign. His office did not respond to several requests for comment on the measure.

The plan will go into law as soon as Cox signs it. If he doesn’t sign it, it goes into effect in May. If he vetoes it, lawmakers have indicated that they plan to override that.

The previous program

Schools in the state had previously been using the Test to Stay program, where once a school hit the outbreak threshold — meaning more than 2% of the student population was infected in large schools or 30 students were infected in smaller schools — they would test all students with parent permission.

Those who tested negative could return to class. Those who tested positive or refused to test were required to stay home for five days.

School leaders have heralded the program as a way to stay class in person. But Test to Stay was suspended by state officials earlier this month as dozens of schools hit the threshold and Utah’s limited test supplies were being used up. They said it wasn’t working with the faster-spreading omicron variant.

HB183 formally pauses that program and sets up, instead, the new process for schools to go online during an outbreak. And it places legislative leaders at the head of the chain of command for the health response.

“Schools need some certainty,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who sponsored the bill in the Senate. “They need to know what’s going on. … They’re in limbo right now.”

This academic year, schools were instructed by the Legislature not to go online, with a requirement that at least four days a week be held in-person unless the four state leaders gave express permission in an exigent circumstance. That permission had not been sought by any school district.

In fact, many schools moved online last week for the first time this year only after state leaders granted permission for them to do so for five days, while they worked out a solution to Test to Stay with the record student outbreaks.

Districts say the new process, though, isn’t an improvement. And Democratic lawmakers spoke out, with all in the minority party voting against it.

District concerns

Yándary Chatwin, the spokesperson for Salt Lake City School District, said she’s concerned that schools won’t be able to respond quickly to an outbreak, before it gets even worse.

Shortly after winter break, she said, “We had our schools hitting the threshold one after the other.”

The district had started Test to Stay and then went online with the permission from the state. That allowed case counts to return back down. But now, Chatwin worries, it won’t go so easily.

First, she said, it would be a challenge to call an emergency meeting of the district’s seven-person school board. And then, after they vote, she said, the district will just have to “hope that state leaders would convene quickly” to rule on their request. She doesn’t see that happening fast enough.

In Granite School District, Horsley said he also worries, without the testing program, that schools won’t really know how bad an outbreak is. The two schools in Granite that had completed Test to Stay this month before it was suspended found more than 20% of the student body had the virus and were largely asymptomatic.

Horsley said he feels that lawmakers are assuming schools want to go online. But, he noted, they don’t.

“We are doing everything we can to not revert to distance learning,” he said. “We recognize the negative impact on our students and our families and our teachers having to make that shift.”

Horsley said the schools in Granite that did opt to go online last week with the break from the state only did so “because they really had no other choice.” There weren’t enough staff to keep schools running, he added. Granite, for instance, had 2,200 requests for substitutes in the first nine days of school this month because so many teachers were sick. And that doesn’t count bus drivers that couldn’t pick up students and lunch staff that were out.

He’d like to see the decision left, instead, just to the local school board to go online.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, also called the new process “an overreach” and said it shouldn’t be up to state leaders. “This is not best policy right now,” she said.

‘The Legislature’s power’

But Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, doesn’t think only going to school boards is a viable path and doesn’t think the concerns among districts will be realized.

“I don’t think it’s an onerous process,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Teuscher acknowledges that he’s had some constituent questions about if having the four leaders weigh in is the “right level of government that should be handling this.” He believes it is. Teuscher said it’s a balance between the local elected leaders of the school board — where the public should be given a chance to weigh in — and then a check from the state to make sure in-person learning is being prioritized where possible.

“We really value in-person education,” he said. “We just want to make sure that all kids have a chance for in-person education.”

He also noted that he believes the decision from state leaders will be “a very quick turnaround” for school requests. And Weiler added that it’s important to have that input “so we’re not turning the Legislature’s power over to the teachers in any particular school.”

Weiler also believes: “I don’t think we could be any nimbler than this bill.”

Both said, too, though, that if the process doesn’t work that there are still several weeks of the legislative session left to tweak it.