The Utah Senate is poised to pass a bill officially suspending the state's Test to Stay program for schools on Thursday.
HB183 codifies the suspension of the program announced one week prior and puts a procedure in place allowing Test to Stay to be reintroduced in the future with the agreement of the Utah Senate president, Speaker of the House, governor and head of state school board or superintendent, said bill co-sponsor Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.
State leaders announced the Test to Stay program's halt in a letter on Jan. 13, as the state anticipated running out of COVID-19 tests amid a record-breaking surge in cases due to the more transmissible omicron variant.
The bill also clarifies when a student may return to school during a Test to Stay event and provides requirements for applying for an exception to an in-person learning requirement. It passed 24-3 in a preliminary vote in the Senate, meaning it will likely receive final approval.
Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, proposed an amendment to the bill that changes the definition of remote learning. The change allows for learning and classwork to take place both while teachers are providing instruction and on students' own time.
Cullimore said he proposed the change after hearing feedback from his school district, and it's meant to "reflect the reality" of how schools are dealing with the pandemic.
The change received approval from the Senate.
Weiler said he believes there are "exigent" circumstances with the omicron variant, "but I think we need to get the school districts some concrete policy. And right now, we're kind of in limbo."
He said the bill would give flexibility for lawmakers to adjust the days students are recommended to stay home from school if symptomatic based on future variants of the coronavirus.
Some lawmakers asked for the Senate to wait to pass the bill.
Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, noted that Utah has the fourth-largest outbreak in the country "and that's concerning."
Many custodians, health care workers in schools, bus drivers, secretaries and administrators have been affected by it, she said, making it difficult for schools to care for students "in a safe manner."
She asked for a "pause" on the bill in order for lawmakers to seek more input for those in the education community. That proposal failed.
Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, said he'd like to see the state get something in statute to guide school districts without more delays.
Weiler said he "appreciated" Riebe pointing out that the state is the fourth-highest in the country in terms of transmission, but he emphasized that key measures are hospitalizations and deaths. He said he doesn't like when people point out things that "make Utah look negative."
After the vote, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, reiterated while speaking to reporters that "tests have been hard to come by."
While state leaders ended the program with a letter, he said the expectation was there would be a bill to make it official.
Adams emphasized that the statute tells students to return to school after 10 days, even though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its recommendation to five days of isolation, followed by five days of masking.
"That just needs to be fixed, and I think that's where we amended it so it follows the CDC guidelines," he said. "So it's really important to get the bill out."
Weiler said he believes that after the bill receives final passage, "we'll be done" with the issue.
On Wednesday, the House passed the bill 57-17 as those in support of the bill said schools need the guidance now and those against it called for more public input.
"There is a real urgency to let our districts and schools know what the approach that we're going to have for Test to Stay is," said sponsor, Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan.
"There's an education standing committee scheduled for tomorrow (Friday) afternoon," said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. "This is something that's important. I'd like to see the public have the opportunity to weigh in."
Teuscher said while this bill is urgent, there will be time during the session to make other possible changes to the Test to Stay program with public input.
Contributor: Ladd Egan