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Utah lawmaker unveils proposal to keep schools open

The bill would create a presumption of openness in the state’s schools, with a ‘Test to Stay’ program triggered by a new, higher positivity threshold.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Syracuse High School students file out of school on Dec. 7, 2020. The Davis School District tried to avoid its second two-week shutdown due to COVID cases by administering rapid antigen tests to students and teachers. The Legislature is considering a bill that would provide new standards for closing schools in a pandemic with a higher threshold than are in place currently.

Utah Sen. Todd Weiler unveiled a new proposal on the Senate floor Friday that he says would help keep the state’s students in the classroom as the coronavirus pandemic wears on.

While schools are currently recommended to shut down when they meet certain coronavirus positivity thresholds, this bill would raise those requirements and create a presumption of openness — allowing students who test negative for COVID-19 during an outbreak to return to class and requiring those who test positive to stay home.

“We’ve learned a lot since school opened in August, and I think it’s time to implement that new knowledge. And we also have learned that the health department is capable of doing a lot of testing,” Weiler told reporters later Friday. “I think this is a win-win.”

Under the bill, SB107, a local school district would be able to request support — including testing supplies and a mobile testing unit — for a “Test to Stay” program once the school reaches new, higher coronavirus case thresholds outlined under the bill. That process would be triggered once 2% of the school’s students at an institution with more than 1,500 students test positive, or once 30 do at a school with fewer than 1,500 students.

The current outbreak marker is 1% of a school’s population, a threshold that many schools, especially high schools with their larger student bodies, have hit quickly and multiple times.

The bill would also narrow what a school could count as a positive case, removing instances that were not contracted at school and positive results that came through testing for athletics.

The move comes after a recent state audit found that some Utah high schools had closed and reopened so many times that students were out of the classroom and learning online for more than 40% of the fall semester.

“We want our students to graduate and there are some high school seniors that have missed so many hours this year that they may not be able to graduate because they can’t meet the requirements,” Weiler said. “And so we need to do, I believe, everything we can as a Legislature to help our students succeed.”

The original language of SB107 threatened any district that didn’t reopen with a face-to-face option by Feb. 8 with immediately losing the per-pupil state funding for students who transfer elsewhere — a measure that was primarily meant to put pressure on the Salt Lake City School District.

Salt Lake City students returned to school earlier this month, and the new version of the bill Weiler unveiled Friday was a “total rewrite” made up of “99% new language,” he noted. This amendment was driven by school superintendents and “targets all 41 school districts and 100 plus charter schools that are not online-only charter schools.”

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, advocated for keeping the original language as a safeguard in case of a similar situation “10 years from now” or further down the line and this would scrap the original concept of the bill “while we have compliance over the short term.”

“You know, we, I guess, in some ways we took the school district to the alley and broke their kneecaps,” he said. “But I wonder if the policy itself was a meaningful policy.”

Weiler, who repeatedly praised the Salt Lake City School District for returning to school, said he didn’t think leaders there had responded to pressure from the Legislature and argued that retaining that language “would dilute the message that we’re raising that threshold to keep kids in school and we’re going to increase testing.”

The Senate voted to circle the bill Friday in an effort to give school leaders time to read the new language and provide input on it.

During debate of the proposal, Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, worried that a new mandate on the state health department could be a distraction from its COVID-19 vaccination rollout and asked if Weiler had been in communication with leaders there about “how this would impact them.”

He said there have been “ongoing discussions” with the department and acknowledged that leaders there have been asked to do “a lot during this pandemic.”

“And helping them to help our students succeed is part of that,” he said.

Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, also expressed some concerns about the burden on the health department but offered his support for the proposal Friday, noting that recent data has shown that transmission isn’t as widespread in schools as some had originally feared.

“We all agree that in-person instruction is the best way for a student to learn and that our students have in fact missed important developmental milestones that we need to wrap our arms around and make sure we get them back on track,” he said.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights and a teacher, also spoke in favor of the bill, noting that it includes “the things that we really wanted as teachers when we first started in September, going back to school.”

“We were asking for direction. We were asking for guardrails. We were asking for support,” she said. “When we started school in September, we had no testing. Testing wasn’t available. You needed to have symptoms. I mean, it was scary. So I think that this is a great use of our time. I think it’s a great way for us to have a thing in place so that we all know where we stand.”

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