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New Rules Require Weekly Testing In Utah Colleges, But Allow Classes To Continue In Person

A photo of a map on the Utah State University campus.
Brian Albers
Utah colleges are working out how to test students and staff weekly starting in January, but their success will largely depend on whether the federal government can get enough testing supplies out.

Late Sunday night, Gov. Gary Herbert announced new statewide restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19. The rules require people to limit casual social gatherings, but don’t require schools or colleges and universities to move online.

State epidemiologist Angela Dunn said while 15-24 year olds are largely driving the recent surge in cases, the evidence suggests transmissions are mostly happening through casual social gatherings with family and friends rather than the classroom.

Utah leaders opted to suspend extracurricular activities for the next two weeks, though made exceptions for intercollegiate sports and high school teams competing for championships. Athletic events run by private companies are also allowed to continue if attendance, mask wearing and physical distancing requirements are enforced.

The biggest change for Utah’s public colleges and universities is that they’ll have to test every student and staff member weekly starting January.

Chris Nelson, communications director for the University of Utah, said the school last week had already planned to test all students before they leave for Thanksgiving break. But after the governor’s announcement Sunday, school officials are now working out the logistics of delivering weekly tests next year. The biggest question, however, will be if the federal government delivers on its promise to provide the state with more rapid testing supplies.

“Availability of tests and products and supplies has been a huge issue,” Nelson said. “There's not only testing, obviously, for our students and faculty staff population, but we're running a health care system that cares for the rest of Utah and the intermountain west. What's changed here was this commitment from the state government and the federal government to make sure that these tests and supplies are available.”

Utah State University announced Monday evening it was also planning to test students before the Thanksgiving holiday but will now begin weekly testing for students at its main campus this week. Its three other campuses will follow suit in the coming weeks.

K-12 Schools

The plan for testing in K-12 schools, however, is still being worked out. In a press conference Monday, Herbert said all teachers can get tested through the state’s TestUtah program, but also hopes to continue expanding testing opportunities, including rapid tests.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said she applauds the governor’s efforts, but doesn’t think the new restrictions go far enough to stop the virus from spreading.

Her organization is pushing for secondary schools in high-transmission areas — currently three-quarters of the state — to move online at least from Thanksgiving through winter break. It would not only help protect the health and safety of students and educators Matthews said, but also give teachers a much-needed break from managing the shift from in-person to online classes as many schools have confronted COVID-19 outbreaks.

“The going back and forth and the chronic uncertainty that we have in our schools is not helping our students,” she said. “It's not helping our teachers and we want a circumstance where we have something that is predictable, at least for a short period of time.”

She said the UEA focused on secondary schools because they’ve had higher case rates and teachers are exposed to more students. She also said older students don’t require the same level of parental supervision that elementary students would need if they were to shift online.

Steve Phelps, a teacher in the Salt Lake City School District and organizer with Safe Utah Schools, agrees the situation has become chaotic, and said the state needs to issue clearer guidance on when schools should close — and enforce them across districts.

He also wants schools to go online for two weeks, but said that should happen now.

“If it's not safe to go meet your mother-in-law or your grandparents, why is it safe to go to a school building with 35 other kids that you have no information about where they've been or what they've been doing?” Phelps said.

As of Monday, about 6% of the state’s total coronavirus cases have been associated with K-12 schools since they reopened for the 2020-21 school year.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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