University of Utah student Justin Ellis prepares to swab his nostril for a rapid COVID-19 test at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020. The university has launched an initiative to test 32,000 students for COVID-19 before the Thanksgiving break.

Steve Griffin, KSL, File

Utah colleges and universities will test students randomly but not regularly under spring semester plan

By Graham Dudley, | Posted - Jan. 7, 2021 at 12:38 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — After Gov. Gary Herbert declared a new state of emergency in early November to battle a rising tide of coronavirus cases, Utah's public colleges and universities were instructed to develop a plan to test all in-person students for the virus at least once a week.

But under a new plan released earlier this week by the Utah System of Higher Education, that requirement is gone. Rather, students will all be tested when the semester begins, and then the institutions will conduct randomized surveillance testing and testing of symptomatic students after that.

The new plan was developed after the state released an updated Public Health Order in mid-December that removed a requirement for college and university students to be tested at least once every 14 days. The testing plan applies to students who live in on-campus housing or are taking at least one class in person this semester.

"We worked closely with state public health leaders and those at Utah's colleges and universities to develop a more refined approach to testing that requires fewer tests and greater flexibility for our institutions to focus on areas that will have the greatest impact," said Dave R. Woolstenhulme, state commissioner of higher education, in a news release. "We are building on what we learned this past fall and are confident these steps will help keep our entire higher education community safe over the coming months. It's important we stay vigilant in our efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19 as we return for a new semester."

In an email, University of Utah spokesman Christopher Nelson said the U. will begin testing students again next week as they return to campus residence halls. The university's spring semester begins on Jan. 19.

"Our COVID-19 positive cases held fairly steady and were manageable for fall semester," Nelson wrote, "and we're optimistic that this additional testing for spring semester will again help contain and slow the virus not only on our campus, but in the broader community."

Students who live on campus — about 3,200 of them — will still be tested weekly, Nelson said. Students with in-person classes will be tested as the semester begins and again in mid-March, and will be subject to random surveillance testing. However, Nelson said only about 10,000 of the U.'s 32,000 students will have an in-person class this semester.

Students will be able to access on-demand testing as desired through the university whether or not they are attending classes in person, Nelson said.

In addition to public schools, the new USHE plan also applies to private universities with more than 10,000 students, it says. That would include Provo's Brigham Young University, but not Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

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