In the face of the omicron surge sapping some Utah schools’ ability to staff classrooms and provide support services, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, legislative leaders and the state superintendent have issued a letter that gives schools flexibility for the next two weeks on in-person attendance.
Growing numbers of Utah schools have reached “test to stay,” thresholds where they must conduct schoolwide testing per state code, allowing those who test negative to remain in in-person learning and send home students who have positive results for quarantine or until they can produce a negative COVID-19 test.
Some schools are also experiencing high rates of student absenteeism, teacher absences and staff shortages among support personnel such as nutrition workers and school bus drivers. In some instances, drivers are driving multiple routes and students are arriving at school 45 minutes to an hour later.
The letter — issued to schools on Thursday and signed by Cox, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, House Speaker Brad Wilson and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson — permits schools, conditionally, to shift to a temporary four-day remote-learning period between during either of the next two weeks beginning Jan. 17 and Jan. 24.
Moving forward, legislation will be introduced next week, the first week of the legislative session, that will formalize a process for schools and districts to apply for exceptions to in-person learning requirements.
According to the letter, “Utah Code requires schools to offer in-person instruction at least four days per week. In effect, this means that if a school has provided in-person instruction Monday through today this week, the school has met the statutory requirement and is free to offer remote learning on Friday.”
It continues, “Additionally, the Utah Code also provides a temporary exception to that in-person requirement when the governor, the president of the Senate, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the state superintendent of public instruction jointly concur with an LEA’s assessment that due to public health emergency circumstances, the risks related to in-person instruction temporarily outweigh the value of in-person instruction.”
Local education agencies eligible for exceptions to the four-day per week attendance requirement would be those that have reached the test to stay program thresholds and their local governing boards have determined that, “due to the transmission of the virus among students or educators in the school, the risks related to in-person instruction temporarily outweigh the value of in-person instruction.”
Local boards would also need to approve the pivot to remote learning for the four days that would have otherwise been required to conduct in-person learning during either of the next two weeks beginning Jan. 17 and Jan. 24.
The letter also announces the suspension of test to stay programs, noting the Utah Department of Health needs to “devote its testing resources to congregate care facilities, long-term care facilities, and community testing sites.”
In a briefing with reporters, Wilson said the test to stay protocol is not effective with the omicron variant.
The protocol was meant to be an early intervention to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 “and it worked really well for COVID one and two, if you want to call it that. But it’s not working with (omicron),” noting the variant results in less severe symptoms.
It was also consuming testing resources from people who are older, vulnerable, and have comorbidities “to test people that are not symptomatic...It’s not the greatest and highest best use of our resources. It’s disrupting our schools, and it’s not effective for the current variant of COVID,” he said.
The letter explains the leaders’ “efforts to alleviate these strains on our students, educators, schools, and testing capacity.”
Some school districts, prior to the issuance of the letter, announced temporary shifts to remote learning on Friday and on Tuesday, following Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, to cobble together five days when students are not in attendance to ostensibly interrupt the rapid spread of the omicron variant.
The Canyons School District Board of Education was first to approve the pivot and was followed by other districts. After the letter from state leaders was announced, other schools announced similar plans.
Parents in Salt Lake City’s East, West and Highland high school communities were notified Thursday that the schools will transition to remote/at-home learning on Jan 14. and Jan 18. with in-person instruction to resume on Jan 19.
Activities will be canceled except for those sanctioned by the Utah High School Activities Association. Only parents will be allowed to attend and masks will be required. Athletic practices will continue but only team members may attend, a statement by the school district said.
The school district will provide grab-and-go meals to students from 10 a.m. to noon on Friday and Tuesday.
Dickson, addressing the Utah State Board of Education earlier on Thursday, said, “We’re at a crisis point in many schools.”
Growing numbers of schools have reached “test to stay,” thresholds where they must conduct schoolwide testing per state code, allowing those who test negative to remain in classrooms while sending home students who have positive results for quarantine or until they can produce a negative test.
“So by the time we hit a test to stay threshold, you’re seeing a great spread already has taken place. Based on that, we have a quarter of our staff out in many of our schools and a quarter of the students and that is actually something that would trigger a school closure with other illnesses,” Dickson said.
Because so many schools reached the threshold at once, they were not able to schedule test to stay events until four or five days later “and by then, the spread is quite rapid.”
Dickson said she has heard from several teachers “who are just really at their tipping point.”
In a recent meeting of Utah leaders, Cox mentioned that his daughter, who attends a school in the Salt Lake Valley, was at a test to stay event at her school, Dickson said.
“She was one of the very few kids in many of her classes in many classes without teachers. So we’re at a crisis point in many of our schools,” Dickson said.
State health officials on Thursday announced a record 12,990 new cases of COVID-19, with 3,007 of them among school-aged children.
There have also been issues with the availability of testing supplies, Dickson said.
“We’ve been OK up until now but starting to run short,” she said. “The federal government is actually sending some more testing supplies out but they may not be here for a week or two.”
As teachers call in sick or take personal days, some districts are increasingly unable to cover their classes. “So these are the real issues that have been happening in many of our schools, particularly across the Wasatch Front and a few in our rural areas as well,” Dickson said.
CONTRIBUTING: Katie McKellar