SALT LAKE CITY — The state has suspended "test-to-stay" in Utah schools, as health officials come up against testing capacity and cases are running rampant in schools statewide.
In a joint letter to school districts, charter schools and lawmakers, Governor Spencer Cox, state schools superintendent Dr. Sydnee Dickson, House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President J. Stuart Adams announced they would pause the requirement, allowing schools to pivot easily to remote learning.
"Given the unique characteristics of the Omicron variant, the availability of vaccinations, and developing guidance from health authorities, it is necessary to step back from test-to-stay programs, allowing the Utah Department of Health to devote its testing resources to congregate-care facilities, long term care facilities, and community testing sites," the letter, shared with FOX 13, said.
Speaker Wilson told reporters at a news conference the move was designed to give schools "the discretion over the next two weeks to go to remote learning."
"If they hit the test-to-stay threshold and their school board says that’s OK for that school," he added.
The Speaker acknowledged that "test-to-stay," designed to keep kids in the classroom while simultaneously avoiding COVID-19, is not effective with the rapidly spreading omicron variant.
"Test-to-stay was really meant to be an early intervention to help reduce the spread of COVID and it worked really well for COVID 1 and 2, if you want to call it that," he said. "But it’s not working with omicron."
The current omicron spike in Utah has caused the number of schools in the protocol to skyrocket, with the number of positive tests among students reaching the hundreds at some schools.
By state law, Test to Stay protocols can be used when a school meets the following criteria:
- Schools with 1,500 or more students have 2% of their students test positive for COVID-19
- Schools with fewer than 1,500 students have 30 students test positive for COVID-19
Under the law, if a student tests negative for COVID-19 and has no symptoms, they may continue in-person learning. While students who test positive with the virus must remain at home and isolate.
Because of the large number of schools expected to go under the protocols, officials are concerned over the amount of tests available. A spokesperson with the Granite School District said they were barely limping along when it came to COVID-19 testing capabilities. The Jordan School District on Thursday announced it was moving to remote learning starting January 19.
The Utah Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, praised the move. In a lengthy statement, the union said it supported mask mandates and school closures to try to get a handle on cases.
"We appreciate Governor Cox, legislative leadership and Superintendent Dickson approving a temporary remote learning exemption to allow this option for school districts. The “close-to-stay-open” strategy only works, however, if the entire community is committed to reducing the number of COVID cases by following the recommendations of our health experts," the UEA said.
"The workload and responsibilities currently heaped on educators is staggering. These dedicated individuals struggle to meet the learning needs of students as well as attend to personal and family health situations. In addition to following health directives, we must support our educators by providing appropriate sick-leave policies and paid leave time. We must also give them the peace of mind knowing their students will be well cared for in their absence by qualified substitute employees."
When the Utah State Legislature meets for its 45-day session next week, Speaker Wilson said expect either a pause or a sunset of the legislation requiring "test-to-stay." He also said the state will unveil new health guidelines for living with omicron.
"The crux of it is, if you’re symptomatic stay home for at least five days. There’s not enough tests coming to us from Washington to test everyone that needs it right now," Speaker Wilson said. "We just want everyone to be really pragmatic about what the right steps are in terms of managing omicron."