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New report suggests moving away from 'soft closures' of schools

Posted at 7:53 PM, Feb 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-05 23:46:47-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A new report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor General recommends Utah schools move away from the current practice of soft closures as a response to COVID-19 outbreaks.

The audit focused on three large school districts in northern Utah that all used soft-closures as the primary COVID-19 mitigation effort, which was initially recommended by Utah's COVID-19 School Manual.

"Essentially, when they reach a threshold of 1 percent having the infection in the school, they'll shut down," said Darin Underwood from the Office of the Legislative Auditor General.

The audit found schools that responded to high COVID-19 case counts with soft closures lost out on up to 44 percent of their in-person learning days, which has some worried the missed days will impact student performance.

"When we looked at the 20 high schools in these three school districts, what we found was that all 20 experienced at least one soft closure," said Tim Bereece in a report to the Legislative Audit Committee Thursday. "Twelve of the 20 experienced two or three soft closures. And so that's a lot of time that students are spending out of the classroom and participating in virtual learning."

To balance the priority of in-person learning with COVID-19 mitigation, the audit recommends schools move to a "Test to Stay" protocol.

"Test to Stay is different than soft closure because instead of closing down the whole school, what we'll do is pick a day and test all the kids in that school if there is parental permission," Underwood said.

Syracuse High School in the Davis School District and Kearns High School in the Granite School District piloted the "Test to Stay" program in December.

Under the program, schools that reach the case count threshold would then test the entire school population. Only students who come back with a positive test, those who have been in direct contact without a mask, as well as students who did not get parental permission to be tested would be sent home to quarantine.

"You let the kids stay that were not infected," Underwood added. "So, you don't close the whole school down."

Underwood said another benefit of the "Test to Stay" protocol is the ability for schools to identify asymptomatic cases. According to the report, 1-2 percent of asymptomatic cases were identified in the two pilot programs. Underwood said these cases would have gone undetected by school and county health officials.

One downside to the protocol, which was acknowledged in the report, is the need for schools to hire extra personnel to administer the tests and gather parent permission.

"We have to have personnel to do these tests, and so that's what's next on the horizon: 'Where do the resources come from?'" Underwood said.

The recommendation to move to "Test to Stay" as the primary COVID-19 mitigation effort in schools was supported by both the Utah Department of Health and the Utah State Board of Education.