SALT LAKE CITY — A bill originally seen as a way to push the Salt Lake City School District into returning all students to the classroom is now focusing on testing for students after its sponsor made major changes Friday.
The language of SB107, sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, was substantially altered to focus instead on requirements surrounding "Test to Stay" protocols and thresholds.
The bill would require the Utah Department of Health to provide support to schools that initiate widespread COVID-19 testing under the Test to Stay program. It also establishes a 2% case threshold, up from 1% of the school population when schools must take steps to mitigate further spread of the virus, which often includes shifting to online learning.
Test to Stay is intended to keep schools operating with in-person classes to the greatest extent possible by excluding students who test positive and allowing students who test negative to continue to attend school in person.
As originally drafted, SB107 would have required the State School Board to reallocate a portion of per-pupil funding from a school district that does not provide a broad-based in-person learning option for all students in kindergarten through grade 12 by Feb. 8. It would also allow the funding to flow to accredited private schools should a student choose that option.
When the bill was drafted, Salt Lake City School District was the only district statewide that had not resumed an in-person learning option for students aside from those who receive special education services and English language learners.
"I praise the Salt Lake School District for taking action to get their kids back in school. That happened on Feb. 8 this week," Weiler said, explaining that he had notified the school district of his intent to substitute the bill's language.
"This is a no reflection against the Salt Lake School District. They've done, I think pretty much everything that the legislators asked them. Instead, this is going to be targeted at the COVID response to all schools," he said.
Some senators praised the substitute bill, among them Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, who is a public school teacher.
Riebe said some of the language "was exactly what our teachers were asking for. We were asking for direction. We were asking for guardrails. We were asking for support. When we first started school in September we had no testing. Testing wasn't available. You needed to have symptoms. I mean, it was scary."
But Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said he preferred the original version, which helped ensure compliance to offering an in-person learning option.
"I guess in some ways, we took the school district to the alley and broke their kneecaps. but I wonder if the policy itself was a meaningful policy?" he said.
Weiler said members of the Salt Lake City School Board have said they did not vote to resume in-person learning because of external pressure.
"I want to praise them for doing that and for the courageous teachers who've gone back into the classroom in some of our communities with high minority and high-risk populations," Weiler said.
Leaving the bill's original language intact likely would be "so distracting that it would dilute the message that we're raising the threshold to keep kids in school and we're going to increase testing. It's my fear that the education community would seize just on that language and would miss the overall objective of the substitute bill," Weiler said.
McCay said the overhaul of the bill's language would likely cost Weiler his vote.
"Parental options or parental choice is not something that the education community should be afraid of. What people should be afraid of is underperforming long-term education objectives," McCay said.
Riebe said the state is working hard to provide school choice, but the opportunities are not available to people who do not have transportation or flexibility in their work schedules.
"Choice should be for everyone and not just for people who are rich and have the luxury of being driving cars and having jobs that start later and then being able to pick up your child," she said.
Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, addressing the bill with reporters on Friday, said a number of superintendents have told lawmakers that they worry about being able to keep schools open under current guidelines.
"They're very, very concerned about students being able to finish their coursework, being able to work toward graduation and really have a need to have more support on the testing side," she said. "They really want to be able to test to stay open, but they are going to need more help and support to be able to get mobile testing units when they hit a certain threshold,"
Raising the threshold to 2% "is really trying to empower them to implement a Test to Stay program," she said, explaining that in large schools, numbers can be really small with the existing 1% case threshold.
Weiler said Utah leaders have learned a lot since schools opened last fall "and I think it's time to kind of implement that new knowledge. And we also have learned that the health department is capable of doing a lot of testing, so I think this is a win-win."
Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, called the changes to the bill "the exact right direction."
"This is a bill now that supports our teachers, supports our children, makes sure we have the resources in time to keep students safe at school," Kitchen said.
Senate Minority Assistant Whip Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, expressed concerns whether the health department, already busy with COVID-19 vaccination efforts, had the bandwidth to aid in additional large-scale COVID-19 testing clinics at schools.
"Have you discussed this with the health departments? How this would impact them and the rollout of vaccines?" she asked.
Weiler said there had been ongoing discussions with health department officials so the bill should be no surprise to them.
"Yes, we're asking the Department of Health to step up and do a lot during this pandemic, and helping them to help our students succeed is part of that," he said.
The Utah Senate voted to accept the substituted bill, which was put on hold to give senators time to review the changes before considering it next week.
Contributing: Ashley Imlay, Deseret News