New bill would officially suspend Utah’s Test to Stay program in schools during COVID-19 spike

The measure also lays out a multi-step process before schools with outbreaks could go virtual.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Students arrive at Jordan High School in Sandy on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.

Utah lawmakers are looking at officially ending Test to Stay, a mandatory testing program for schools experiencing coronavirus outbreaks, as long as COVID-19 continues to rampage through the state’s population.

Instead of relying on the program to contain the virus, the new bill states that schools with a large number of infections could pivot to remote learning — if state leaders give their permission.

Sen. Todd Weiler said he’s proposing the changes in SB113 because Test to Stay, a program designed to keep students in the classroom as much as possible is no longer working as intended. The current surge in coronavirus cases has maxed out Utah’s testing capacity, and Gov. Spencer Cox joined legislative leaders last week in saying the program was taxing the state’s resources.

Test to Stay was generally working before omicron hit Utah, Weiler said, but much has changed since the program was initially launched last year.

“Now, we’ve got vaccinations available not only for teachers, which was still new a year ago, but for students. And we know that fortunately, omicron is less deadly for the public at large,” the Woods Cross Republican said. “Of course, for some people, it may still turn out to be deadly ... and I don’t want to discount that. But I think we’re in a different position today than we were 10 or 12 months ago.”

The bill would allow Test to Stay to return if the state health department, governor, legislative leaders and Utah superintendent of public instruction jointly decide the program would once again “be effective in mitigating the harmful public health effects” of whatever variant is currently predominant in Utah classrooms.

In the program’s absence, schools with outbreaks of the disease — meaning that more than 2% of the student population is infected in large schools or 30 students are infected in smaller schools — could shift to virtual instruction after completing a multistep process.

First, the local school board would have to hold a public hearing, then vote to support online classes and send state leaders their request. Their message would have to stipulate the “specific and temporary period of time” the school would be learning virtually and outline the measures local officials would take to return to in-person instruction.

If the governor, legislative leaders and state superintendent of public instruction give permission, the school could then go remote, according to the legislation.

Rather than suspending the testing program only in areas with severe outbreaks, the bill takes a statewide approach to provide continuity for all of Utah’s public schools, Weiler said.

If passed by a two-thirds majority, the bill would take effect as soon as the governor signs it.

Weiler said he expected the legislation would pass the Senate without a public hearing in committee, although there would be a chance for people to comment on the bill in the House of Representatives.

“We also had several COVID-related hearings during the fall and the winter. And we kind of know a thousand people are going to show up, and we could all write the script of what some of them would say and what the other ones would say,” he said. “It’s not like we don’t know the arguments.”