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Why parents say one Utah school COVID-19 test program failed

Posted at 9:55 PM, Dec 08, 2020

SYRACUSE, Utah — One day after a pilot program to test high school students and staff for COVID-19 failed to meet its threshold, leading to a soft closure of Syracuse High School, some parents are saying they know why the "Test to Stay" program fell short.

The Davis School District rolled out the pilot program in the Syracuse High gymnasium Monday, where dozens of nurses were set up to conduct rapid COVID-19 tests on students and staff.

Chris Williams, spokesperson with the Davis School District, said they met the 80 percent threshold when it came to the number of parents who consented to having their kids tested.

But when it came time to test on Monday, only 68 percent of students showed up to the gym. He said they aren't quite sure why the school was 12 percent short, but did say if students didn't want to test then it was their choice not to.

"It's still up to the student whether they wanted to come down and take the test," Williams said. "We weren't forcing them."

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It wasn't enough for school to continue in-person, and by Monday night the district announced Syracuse High was moving to online learning.

Syracuse High parent Genevra Prothero talked about how her son said students were texting each other not to take the test, because some of them wanted the soft closure.

"The kids were telling each other, 'Just don't do it,'" she said, of what her son told her.

She didn't want her son to test and chose not to consent.

Prothero explained that the school sent her two emails over the weekend announcing the Monday "Test to Stay" pilot program and asking for permission ASAP.

The first email, she said, came in on Friday after school was closed. The second arrived Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours before testing began.

"This is no time for us to research, ask questions, or prepare," she said.

She had several questions, and Prothero expressed that she wasn't alone. Many other parents and teachers she's spoken with through an education-focused Facebook group she runs, had concerns as well.

"We feel blindsided," she said. "And there are several parents that feel blindsided. And there are a lot of parents that feel that this was ridiculous that they sent us the message after the school was closed, because we were not able to ask questions."

READ: COVID-19 surges around Utah after Thanksgiving testing lull

She questioned the rapid test used in the program, and worried about false negatives.

Prothero also wondered how a student's privacy would stay protected if the student tested positive but had gone back to class and needed to be notified in class of the positive result.

The emails didn't spell out some of the details she wanted to know, and she said there weren't policies or procedures that she could read to see how this would work.

"There needs to be a plan, and it needs to be in writing," she said. "And the parents need to be able to see what is going to happen, and exactly what is going to occur."

Williams explained that they had designated runners who went to the student's classroom and waited until the class change to bring the student back to the office and let them know.

As far as why things happened so fast, he said the Davis School Board voted last Tuesday to allow the district to consider the pilot program.

Less than a week later, they carried it out.

"It's a pilot, doesn't mean it's perfect. This is our first attempt to do this," Williams said. "We had plenty of nurses. We had 29 nurses, including our school nurses, nurses from the county health department, nurses from the state health department who were all there helping us out. We had the ability to pull it off, which we did."

He said they still consider the first "Test to Stay" program a success, even if they didn't hit the 80 percent threshold.

"At end of testing Monday, we had 19 additional individuals positive with COVID-19," he said.

Williams said that was higher than they ever anticipated.

"Success" isn't the word Prothero used to describe the program, the way she saw it as a parent.

"It was a fail," she said. "I want to definitely share that it was a fail. And the school board, they need to take some accountability for some of the choices that they have made."

She said she's not totally against the testing and rapid testing, but "let's do it the right way."

Now that the district has carried out one pilot program, Williams said there will be discussions on what will happen down the road.

He said they probably wouldn't do it again until January when everyone is back from winter break.

In the meantime, Syracuse High School is on soft closure until winter break, which means students won't return to in-person class until January at the soonest.