Why Utah’s innovative school COVID-19 testing program failed

In fall 2021, testing events at Utah public schools failed to decrease coronavirus transmission.

My latest story with the Documenting COVID-19 project is an investigation into Utah’s school COVID-19 testing program, in collaboration with the Salt Lake Tribune.

As longtime readers know, I have done a lot of reporting on school COVID-19 testing programs. I find these efforts to routinely test K-12 students fascinating, in part because of the unique potential for collaboration between school districts, health departments, and other community institutions—and also because of the immense challenges that arise when schools are asked to become health providers in a way we never would’ve considered before the pandemic.

Utah’s program caught my eye last year when I was reporting a story for Science News on the hurdles schools faced in setting up COVID-19 testing. This state was an early pioneer of Test to Stay, a strategy in which students must test negative to attend school after a potential exposure rather than going through a (potentially unnecessary) quarantine.

In Utah’s version of Test to Stay, once 1% of students tested positive for the virus, the entire school would go through a testing event. Students who tested negative could keep attending school without interruption, while those who tested positive (or those who refused to participate) could quarantine. The Utah health department tested out this program in the 2020-2021 school year, and it was so successful that a CDC MMWR boasted it had “saved over 100,000 days of in-person instruction.”

After that successful test, Utah’s state legislature codified the program into law for the 2021-2022 school year. But Test to Stay crashed and burned this past fall, even before the Omicron variant overwhelmed Utah’s test supplies.

Here’s why the program failed, according to our investigation:

  • When putting Test to Stay into law, the Utah state legislature doubled the threshold for school cases that would trigger a testing event, from 1% to 2% of the student body. (Or from 15 to 30 students at smaller schools with under 1,500 students.) This higher threshold allowed COVID-19 to spread more widely before testing events took place, leading to higher case numbers when students were finally tested.
  • Utah’s lawmakers also banned schools from requiring masks in fall 2021, leading to more transmission. Experts said the original program was intended to be paired with masks and other safety measures; it was not able to stand on its own.
  • In the 2020-2021 school year, Test to Stay was paired with a second program called Test to Play: mandatory testing every two weeks for students on sports teams and in other extracurriculars. Without this regular testing in fall 2021, Utah schools had less capacity to identify school cases outside of voluntary and symptomatic tests—so it took longer for schools to reach the Test to Stay threshold.
  • The Utah health department allowed individual schools and districts to request rapid tests for additional surveillance testing. Some administrators requested thousands of tests and made them regularly available to students and staff; others were entirely uninterested and did not encourage testing at their schools.
  • Testing in schools has become increasingly polarized in recent months, like all other COVID-19 safety measures. One school administrator told me that he faced some vocal parents who felt “that their rights were being trampled on” by the testing program. Without high numbers of students opting in to get tested, testing programs are inherently less successful.

Even though the CDC endorsed Test to Stay as part of its official school COVID-19 guidance last December—citing Utah’s program as a key example—its future in the state is now uncertain. State lawmakers paused the program during the Omicron surge in January and have yet to revive it. At the same time, lawmakers have made it even harder for Utah schools to make their own decisions around safety measures.

What school districts and health departments should actually be doing, experts told me, is stock up on rapid tests now so that they’re ready to do mass testing in future surges. It’s unlikely that the Omicron wave will be our last, much as some Utah Republicans might want to pretend that’s the case.

You can read my full story at MuckRock’s site here (in a slightly longer version) or at the Salt Lake Tribune here (in a slightly shorter version). And the documents underlying this investigation are available on the Documenting COVID-19 site here.

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