Utah House quickly passes bill suspending Test to Stay in public schools

Early in the 2022 general session, the Legislatures has passed several measures targeting pandemic response without a public hearing.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) School nurse Karen Thelin tests a student for COVID-19 at American Preparatory Academy in Draper on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021.

Utah Legislators are moving quickly to pause the mandatory Test to Stay program for Utah’s public schools.

A pair of identical bills, SB113 from Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, and HB183 from Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, were introduced in the first two days of the 2022 session. The Senate version hit a snag during floor debate on Tuesday, while the House iteration zipped to quick passage Wednesday morning.

“This was a program implemented at the beginning of the pandemic and actually worked pretty well to get our kids back into school. Our approach has had to evolve. Test to Stay isn’t practical and isn’t working right now,” Teuscher explained during floor debate on Wednesday.

Last week legislative leaders and Gov. Spencer Cox put a pause to the initiative, which sought to keep kids in classrooms and slow the spread of COVID-19. The current explosion in cases from the omicron strain of the virus coupled with a scarcity of testing supplies has overwhelmed testing capacity. It’s such a problem in Utah that Cox and state leaders said last week that Utahns who are showing symptoms should skip testing altogether and just stay home.

The proposed legislation gives the final decision-making authority for some COVID-related measures in public schools to state leaders.

Test to Stay could return if the state health department, governor and legislative leaders jointly decide reinstating the program would be beneficial, but only if testing would be effective against mitigating the effects of a coronavirus variant.

If an outbreak reaches certain thresholds, schools could move to remote learning, but only after completing a lengthy and arduous process. School boards must explain why the risk of in-person learning outweighs moving to virtual instruction, hold a public meeting to vote on the proposed shift and detail how long they plan on holding classes remotely.

If they get through all of that, the governor, speaker of the house, senate president and state superintendent get the final say. The bill does not specify a timeline for granting such a request.

The bill is one of a handful of measures targeting the response to the pandemic brought up without a public hearing.

On Tuesday, the Senate passed a resolution to overturn Salt Lake County’s mask mandate shortly after the bill was first made public. SB113 was first introduced Tuesday before immediately proceeding to debate on the Senate floor. HB183 first saw the light of day Wednesday morning before the House passed it on a party-line vote shortly before noon.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, found the lack of public input troublesome.

“I have a problem with rushing unnecessarily to debate this important topic on the floor of the House without sufficient cause to go through the regular process. Having an opportunity for folks to weigh in and provide us their input is a critical part of the process. We ought to have it in this particular situation,” King said.

That will likely happen now that the bill is headed to the Senate where it will supplant Weiler’s bill in the process — which probably won’t lead to any hurt feelings as both Weiler and Teuscher are on board with the parallel pieces of legislation. Weiler is the Senate sponsor of Teuscher’s bill, and Teuscher was scheduled to take the lead on Weiler’s bill in the House.