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SALT LAKE CITY — Absent test data, what metrics will schools use to make their case?
Moving forward, top state leaders will be the ones to decide whether local schools can pivot to online learning amid a COVID-19 surge under legislation that won final passage in the Utah House of Representatives on Monday on a vote of 55-16.
HB183 passed each legislative house on party-line votes despite objections that the legislation did not have a committee hearing and that local school boards were in a better position to decide when a temporary switch to remote learning was necessary.
Although the Utah State Board of Education took no official stand on the bill, some members expressed concerns that the legislation usurped local control and created a process that will not be nimble enough to address rapidly changing conditions in schools.
Board member Molly Hart, who is a middle school principal, said she struggled with the legislation because "this pandemic stuff moves quickly and changes quickly" and the decision-making needs to sit with local education agencies.
"This one does not meet the needs of students in schools. It just doesn't," said Hart in a State School Board meeting late last week.
Of particular concern is that the legislation establishes no time frame in which the governor, Senate president, House speaker and the state superintendent of public instruction must decide whether a school can pivot to online learning.
"We're making decisions in an hour. Parents can't wait for these decisions and it takes time to get it done," Hart said.
Board vice chairwoman Laura Belnap questioned how caseloads will be determined after Utah Gov. Spencer Cox urged Utahns who have COVID-19 symptoms to forgo testing and stay home.
Nicholas Rupp, spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department, said schools and the health department are looking at the respective data each collects.
Emphasizing it is an ongoing discussion, Rupp said "I think absenteeism would be one thing we would look at."
"We'd also look at syndromic surveillance data, which we and the state public health system have been doing since the beginning of the pandemic. The Syndromic Surveillance System actually gives me, personally, a lot of comfort because it has matched our case trends really, really closely the entire time," he said.
Data is collected when people seek care for respiratory illnesses in urgent care clinics or emergency rooms. It is used to help health officials track trends in community spread of respiratory illnesses such as influenza, respiratory syncytial virus and COVID-19.
Available staffing is another key consideration, said Ben Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District.
Some school districts are asking parents to substitute teach. Others are pressing district-level employees to occasionally fill in for absent teachers.
Recently, some school districts had so few bus drivers available that drivers were pressed into driving multiple routes and students were arriving at school 45 minutes to an hour late.
The bill codifies a letter sent to schools on Jan. 13 that suspended the "test to stay" program and granted schools a reprieve from the requirement in Utah Code that they provide in-person instruction at least four days per week. The two-week window for that exception ended on Friday.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said the quick spread of the omicron variant was "a game changer."
Test to stay wasn't useful to get ahead of the spread of the variant. Health officials said by the time schools hit the 2% threshold, the spread was substantially greater.
For instance, Skyline High School in Millcreek had more than 200 cases when it conducted a test to stay event during which 260 additional positive cases were detected, Dickson said.
So many schools hit test to stay thresholds at once that there were not enough workers to staff test to stay events.
HB183, sponsored by Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, suspends the test to stay requirement but leaves open the possibility of its use in the future if, in consultation with the Utah Department of Health, top state leaders jointly determine "that a variant of COVID-19 currently affecting the public education system is of a type that testing and isolation under a test to stay program would be effective in mitigating the harmful public health effects of the variant."
The legislation also creates another process for schools that want to pivot to online learning because they believe the risks related to in-person instruction temporarily outweigh the value of in-person instruction. In that case, a local school board or charter school board would submit a request to the governor, Senate president, House speaker and the state superintendent of public instruction.
The application must include a specific time frame and the district's or charter school's plan to return to in-person learning. The four state leaders will confer and approve, or approve with modifications, the request, according to the bill.
As originally drafted, the bill defined remote learning as "primarily synchronous learning through which an educator and students connect in the same virtual method concurrently instead of solely individualized online work."
At the urging of educators, the bill was amended to expand the definition to also include asynchronous learning experiences.
Mary Catherine Perry, who has one child in junior high and one in high school and two others who are graduates of Salt Lake City schools, said whether a local school board or state leaders make the decision to temporarily shift to remote learning, individual households are left to figure out how to adjust.
"I can manage this but I am terrified for these families who can't. They're working multiple jobs. They're on the front lines and to do that and then go home to manage online learning would be very scary," she said.