Tribune Editorial: Testing can rescue our schools

We need to end the choice between public education and public health

Before “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was “The Goon Show,” an absurdist radio program on the BBC that featured, among others, a young Peter Sellers. In 1957, the program included a sketch in which the first man to take off in an airplane came to a bad end because only after he was airborne did he realize that nobody had yet invented the airport.

It is equally absurd, but not nearly as funny, to realize that many schools in the United States, notably the Salt Lake City School District, have moved to remote learning out of concern for the COVID-19 pandemic, only to discover that nobody had really invented a system to immediately make online education work for so many young people all at once.

It’s not, necessarily, that such a thing could never work. Online education exists with some charter schools and is increasingly favored among college students. And a great many grown-ups are doing their jobs from home or otherwise away from their traditional office spaces.

It’s just that trying to invent the landing strip while so many planes were already in the air has not proved as successful as we might have hoped.

We apparently just assumed that a generation that seems to have electronic devices grafted to their hands would easily take to education by the same means as they devour entertainment. But education is not entertainment, something you can take or leave as you please. It requires more focus and devotion.

And, as we are learning, the lack of direct, in-person contact with teachers and other students is proving fatal to the whole process of schooling for many. Not to mention the increasingly obvious fact that not every household has a high-speed internet connection, a computer for every person and parents with enough time and energy to supervise multiple assignments, a variety of programs and a thicket of logins and passwords.

As The Salt Lake Tribune has reported in recent weeks, large numbers of Salt Lake City students have recorded failing grades in at least one subject. Enrollment and attendance are down, particularly in Salt Lake City, as families transfer their children to other districts to get their children back to familiar and supportive classroom environments.

The loss of one year, or even one semester, threatens to do serious damage to the educational accomplishments of millions of children.

In short, we need to get the kids back to school.

Which is why the best news in weeks seems to be that some Utah school districts are rolling out what’s called the Test to Stay program.

No, it’s not another standardized exam. It’s a rapid response test for COVID-19 that, when given to enough students, teachers and staff, can allow schools to reopen, or stay open, with a fair amount of confidence that English class won’t become a superspreader and that asymptomatic middle schoolers won’t carry potentially fatal infections home to Grandma.

We have known since the pandemic was new that testing, tracing and isolating would be necessary. It has taken far too long to accomplish even this limited program. But, having developed it, it should not only be made available in schools, but also made mandatory.

It is no violation of a student’s rights or a parent’s authority to enforce such a basic public health protocol. Nobody is searching for evidence of a crime or sharing personal medical data beyond that specifically needed to protect the community.

With Test to Stay, we have some hope that we will no longer have to choose between public education and public health.