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Audit says Utah schools should drop COVID-19 ‘soft closures’ policy

Legislative auditors recommend ‘Test to Stay’ protocols to curb loss of so many in-person learning school days

The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.
The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — “Soft closures” of schools in large school districts in northern Utah due to COVID-19 outbreaks that exceed certain thresholds resulted in the loss of 40% of in-person instruction days for some schools, a new review reveals.

The limited review, conducted by the Utah Office of the Legislative Auditor General, examined conditions for the current school year and recommends schools drop the soft closures policy.

Soft closure means schools pivot to online learning when active cases of COVID-19 exceed the recommended threshold of 15 per school, although some school districts use standards that refer to percentages of student and staff absent due to coronavirus diagnosis or quarantines due to exposure.

“While soft closure at the time was a useful policy, additional data and the increased availability of testing supplies suggest it is time to reevaluate the soft closure policy and consider “Test to Stay” as the primary option to control outbreaks,” the review states.

For the period of Sept. 20 to Dec. 18 — one school missed 22 days of in-person learning or 44% of scheduled instructional days, according to the review.

Auditors examined 20 schools in three school districts, each of which experienced at least one soft closure, most two weeks in duration.

“Twelve of the 20 schools 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,” Tim Bereece, senior audit supervisor, told members of Legislative Audit Subcommittee Thursday.

“So in and out, in and out, in and out?” said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

“Yes, that is exactly the case,” Bereece said.

Some Utah schools have utilized the Test to Stay protocol as an alternative to dismissing in-school learning. As the name implies, students who test negative stay in school and students who test positive isolate at home and shift to remote learning.

Schools use rapid antigen tests that can produce results within 15 minutes. A commonly used test requires a swab of a lower nostril, which is applied to a test card roughly the size of a credit card, which can detect the presence of proteins found on or within the novel coronavirus.

The review said political leaders and health professionals champion in-person instruction because “when schools are closed to in-person instruction, disparities in educational outcomes could become wider.”

Moreover, students benefit from the interpersonal interactions they get in school, and “schools provide critical instruction and academic support that benefit students and communities in both the short- and long-term,” the review states.

Also, schools provide safe and supportive environments.

The review recommends that Utah school districts and charter schools, local health departments and the Utah Department of Health increase efforts to publicize the benefits of Test to Stay, as parental consent is required for students to participate.

It also recommends schools consider moving to Test to Stay as their primary mitigation option when responding to a school outbreak as it allows the greatest opportunity for uninterrupted in-person instruction.

The Utah State Board of Education’s response to the review expressed support for the Test to Stay program as an option to reduce community spread while maximizing in-person learning opportunities, but noted “issues of resources and personnel must be addressed for this option to be effectively viable.”

The letter, signed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson, states that some districts and schools find the Test to Stay strategy more difficult to execute compared to shifting to virtual learning.

“With Test to Stay, it takes additional time and personnel to collect parent permission and apply the testing strategy. Testing also takes time out of class for students to be tested before they can safely return, which can result in a one- or two-day delay. Finally, Test to Stay can increase the demands on educators by requiring them to provide both in-person as well as remote instruction,” the letter states.

Addressing the committee, Dickson added, “It’s just untenable for teachers to be teaching in several modalities all at the same time.”

The audit notes a need to better publicize Test to Stay opportunities within school communities. For instance, Davis School District participated in a pilot prior to winter break, which needed 80% participation from students. The participation fell short and the school had to shift to online learning.

Since students’ return from winter break, Davis School District has had a successful test of the protocol.

“We just want to make sure that these kind of positive outcomes are also being publicized,” Bereece said, noting that a key element in the testing program is parental consent “so their students can continue to participate in uninterrupted in-person instruction.”

The Utah Department of Health’s response notes Test to Stay is a relatively new strategy that began in December. Early indications suggest some districts have found the program to be useful and manageable, while others “expressed apprehension about their ability to meet the capacity needs to implement the Test to Stay strategy.”

While tests appear to be readily available, school districts are bearing much of the cost of administering the tests. In Davis School District’s case this week, 42 testers worked at the school, 30 of them paid by the school district and the local health department supplying 12 people to help, Bereece said.

The state health department will work with the State School Board, local schools and health departments to identify barriers and strategies to overcome them, said executive director Rich Saunders.

“We welcome the support and influence of the Legislature in encouraging adoption of Test to Stay,” the state health department’s written response said.