Utah colleges would need 85% of classes to be in person by August under this House bill

While the bill eyes the future of education, its overall goal is to keep students in the classroom now as the pandemic wears on.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This Aug. 27, 2020, file photo shows a limited student population on campus as classes begin at the University of Utah due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. A bill moving through the Legislature would require public colleges and universities to offer 85% of their course offerings as in-person classes.

Utah’s colleges and universities would be required by August to offer at least 85% of the number of in-person classes that they provided in fall 2019 under a bill that passed through the House of Representatives on Monday.

That forward-looking provision came as an amendment to a proposal that seeks overall to keep students in the classroom as the pandemic wears on, by allowing those who test negative for COVID-19 during an outbreak to return to class and requiring those who test positive to stay home.

“We know that students will do much better in the classroom,” said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield and the bill’s House sponsor, during debate of the measure on Monday. “That’s our goal is to try to get the kids back in the classroom.”

Schools are currently recommended to shut down when they meet certain coronavirus positivity thresholds. But 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 a school reaches the 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.

Much of the debate around school openings has centered around K-12 students, particularly in light of a recent audit that found 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.

But Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said he thought the amendment Ray presented Monday relating to higher education was an important recognition of the value of in-person instruction for older students, as well.

“It’s not only our K through 12 students who need to be in classrooms, but it’s also our college students,” he said.

With the current pace of vaccinations, the state has said it expects anyone 16 and older who wants a vaccine will be able to have one by the end of May, so Gibson said the risk level of requiring in-person instruction will be down by the time that requirement would take effect in August.

And he also sees the bill as a way to ensure state dollars that have gone toward classroom space over the years actually go to that use.

“Every year we have universities come and ask us for millions and hundreds of millions of dollars for buildings,” he said. “If it’s the desire of the universities to continue to hold only online classes, then let’s question why are we giving them the millions of dollars that they’re requesting for more bricks and mortar. So this is just a way for us to see that we’re funding classroom space, physical brick and mortar classroom space.”

But Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray and an associate professor of psychology at Salt Lake Community College, said she opposed the effort to mandate a certain number of in-person classes, a move she worried could limit online instruction for students.

Online classes are “an option that our students can do from other parts of the state or even out of state, and with our low enrollments, it helps us to keep enrollments high,” she said. “My concern with this is that in going to a specific number, it may not allow us to have enough online options or WebEx or Zoom options for our students who have come to rely on these.”

The bill provides an exception for any institution of higher education that’s had a decline in enrollment between September 2019 and August 2021 that would allow the school to offer fewer in-person courses in proportion to that drop.

Speaking to the bill’s requirements for K-12 students, Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, said Monday that he was concerned the government was telling students that they had to submit to coronavirus testing in order to attend school in person.

“When we determine that healthy kids have to submit to certain things to prove that they’re not sick, it feels to me like we’re violating a basic right,” he said.

“What I would love to see us do is figure out a determination for when someone poses a direct public health threat and address that direct threat rather than directing everybody else” to get tested, Lyman added. “And especially when it’s the kids in the K-12 and in my mind, this bill does more to validate what I think is an unconstitutional assault on a person’s privacy or freedoms than it does to limit it.”

Under the bill, parents have to give permission for their students to be tested, Ray noted, and he said the goal is that 60% of the student body will participate in the testing program, meaning not everyone has to consent.

The bill passed with a 50-22 vote and now heads back to the Senate for concurrence with the amendments relating to higher education. If it passes there, SB107 will head to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto.