Test to Stay, 'pauses' and online learning: How Utah schools are dealing with COVID-19 'wildfire'

Viewmont High School student Aubrey Weeks is hugged by her mother and Davis School District COVID aide Brenda Weeks after her COVID-19 test at the school in Bountiful on Wednesday. The school conducted testing on Wednesday after recent COVID-19 cases among students pushed it past the "test to stay” threshold, where they are required to test students.

Viewmont High School student Aubrey Weeks is hugged by her mother and Davis School District COVID aide Brenda Weeks after her COVID-19 test at the school in Bountiful on Wednesday. The school conducted testing on Wednesday after recent COVID-19 cases among students pushed it past the "test to stay” threshold, where they are required to test students. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Standing at a lectern facing the district school board, Canyons School District Superintendent Rick Robins asked the board to authorize a brief "pause" in in-person school attendance next week.

With students already excused for a teacher grading day on Friday and Martin Luther King Jr. Day to be observed on Monday, Robins asked the school board to OK the district pivoting to online learning the following Tuesday for a total of five days away from classrooms.

"I am pleading with our community that we are in a crisis. I mean this virus is overrunning our schools and it's spreading like wildfire. I'm just asking people, please pay attention to this. I'm hedging my bet, if people will help us with this, I do think it will interrupt enough to at least slow it down," he said.

Alpine District in northern Utah County also aims to take a five-day pause, utilizing the holiday weekend to get respite from "the recent spike in cases," according to the district website. It has moved students to at-home learning for Friday and Tuesday.

"All facilities will be sanitized during this emergency at-home learning period and prepared for the return to face-to-face learning next Wednesday," the district states, adding that officials "highly recommend masks and social distancing."

As the omicron variant continues its swift spread in Utah, with growing numbers of cases among school-age children, school leaders like Robins are casting about for interventions to help them weather the storm. State health officials reported 10,200 new cases on Wednesday, the highest daily number since the start of the pandemic, with 2,304 of the cases among school-age children.

Between illnesses and quarantines after testing positive, student absences are growing exponentially. Compared to the last two weeks of school prior to winter break, there has been a 95% increase in absences in Canyons District since school resumed on Jan. 3. Absenteeism climbed 65% in the district's junior highs and 66% in its high schools over the same time period.

But that's just part of what Utah schools are experiencing.

Utah's COVID-19 testing capacity has been pinched by limited availability of personnel to conduct tests. In Salt Lake County alone, 20 high schools have reached test-to-stay thresholds and a handful of others are close.

Nicholas Rupp, spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department, said the county has an adequate supply of test kits. "Our limiting factor in holding these test to stay events is having enough staff" while the numbers of schools exceeding the threshold rises.

"We have three testing teams generally and so we can be three places simultaneously. We cannot be 18 places simultaneously," he said.

According to the Davis School District dashboard, four of its high schools have reached the test to stay threshold.

School board members are questioning whether there will continue to be sufficient numbers of test kits as more schools reach "test to stay" thresholds where they are required to test students, allowing those with negative results to remain in classroom and send home students who test positive to quarantine or return when they have a negative test result.


Early Wednesday, the White House announced the Biden administration's plans to give schools an additional 10 million free COVID tests monthly to boost testing efforts. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, during an interview on CBS Mornings said the test kits should start arriving next week. Half of the tests to be distributed are laboratory-based while 5 million are rapid point-of-care tests.

State officials have not yet been informed of additional test kits being made available by the federal government. Jenny Johnson, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Health, said the state typically spends COVID-19 funds on testing supplies.

Perhaps a greater concern for counties and the state is having sufficient numbers of workers available to staff testing sites, whether the events are at school or in the community. In most cases, school districts work with their local health departments on testing and the state can help if it has available personnel.

Between increased demand for school testing and the surge in testing tied to the omicron spread, "all the systems are getting maxed out. That's certainly the case when we're testing between 40,000 and 45,000 people every single day. That is a lot of testing being done," Johnson said.

Some school board members are concerned that delays in testing will result in temporary shifts to online learning until testing is available. The Utah Legislature has made clear that it wants schools to keep students in in-person learning as much as possible.

Aside from concerns about testing, Utah schools continue to struggle as teachers take sick days or personal days and there are not enough substitutes to cover their classes. Some are being led by on-site staff such as classroom assistants. Some schools have combined classrooms under one teacher to get through the day.

Some districts are asking district-level staff to plan to substitute teach in addition to their regular duties as needed.

Shortages among school nutrition workers are ongoing and some district bus drivers are driving multiple routes to cover for absent drivers, which means students are getting to school late.

Results of Canyons District's "courtesy testing" of employees and students indicate a near 27% positivity rate among 622 tests conducted Monday.

The district has been told that due to limited supplies of tests that moving forward the test should be limited to people who are symptomatic, Robins said.

A growing number of schools announced Wednesday plans to temporarily pivot to online learning due to the recent spike of COVID-19 cases and resulting absences of students of staff.

The state's largest district, Alpine School District, will conduct at-home learning on Friday and Tuesday, Jan. 18. There is no school Monday in observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday.

Robins said he discussed the district's "pause" plan with Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, who told him it was worth trying.

"Maybe our cases go up but maybe, it does disrupt it enough to slow it down," Robins said. "But right now, it is burning hot through our communities."

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