Utah led the nation in finding ways to keep students in the classroom, while many schools across the country closed their doors at the beginning of the 2020–2021 school year

Utah was recently highlighted as a leader in COVID-19 K-12 school testing in the RAND Corporation’s new report, COVID-19 Testing in K-12 Schools: Insights from Early Adopters. The report describes approaches early adopters of COVID-19 testing in K-12 schools were using to make testing effective, feasible, and accepted in schools.  

“What a tremendous testament to the innovative and collaborative spirit in Utah, one that has allowed us to lead the nation in such an important way. Utah has shown a commitment to the total health of children by working together to balance risks, build bridges, and use every available resource to get students back to in-person learning safely,” said Dr. Michelle Hofmann, deputy director at the Utah Department of Health. “This recognition is well-deserved and we have so much and so many partners to be thankful for. We look forward to seeing where this goes next, as we adapt and respond together on behalf of the well-being of our students and teachers.”

The Utah COVID-19 School Manual was one of the first guidance documents in the country designed to help school administrators navigate the complexities of operating in-person learning as safely as possible during the pandemic. In addition, the Test to Play and Test to Stay programs provide assurance to school administrators and parents that schools and extracurricular activity programs continue to operate safely. 

When most Utah schools reopened for in-person instruction in fall 2020, the Utah Department of Health, with support from researchers from the University of Utah’s Health and Economic Recovery Outreach (HERO) project, observed COVID-19 rates were higher among youth aged 15–24 years than among younger students. With a commitment from the federal government to provide a stable supply of BinaxNOW tests earmarked for K-12 schools, the Utah Department of Health prioritized distributing tests to high schools throughout the state, and developed the Test to Play and Test to Stay programs. 

The Test to Play program lets students safely participate in extracurricular activities.

Test to Play was implemented in November 2020 by a state public health order. The goal of Test to Play is to allow students and staff to participate in extracurricular activities as safely as possible. If masks are not worn during the activity, extracurricular activities may be higher-risk environments than school classrooms. Regular testing can find students and staff who are infectious with COVID-19 quickly and help prevent further spread of the virus in the school and community. Under the program, students, teachers, and staff may participate in extracurricular activities if they:

  • Are tested for COVID-19 at least once every 14 days. 
  • Are not in isolation or quarantine. 
  • Don’t have any symptoms of COVID-19.

The Test to Stay program is effective at keeping schools open for in-person learning.

Test to Stay was implemented in January 2021 by a policy outlined in the Utah COVID-19 School Manual. The goals of Test to Stay are to allow students and staff to participate in in-person learning as safely as possible, while lessening the burden quarantine and repeated soft closures have on students and their families, teachers, and school administrators. When a school meets outbreak thresholds outlined in the COVID-19 School Manual, the local education authority (in consultation with the local health department) can decide to either:

  • Offer rapid antigen testing for all students and staff, or
  • Take other actions consistent with public health guidance to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Testing students and staff on a statewide scale is feasible and can help slow the spread of COVID-19. 

A survey conducted with school administrators in February 2021 by the Utah Department of Health showed: 

  • Low positivity rates in Test to Stay and Test to Play events. This indicates using these types of testing strategies, along with guidelines in the COVID-19 School Manual, make a difference and help to stop the spread of COVID-19 among school populations.
  • Sixty-one percent of school administrators who responded to the survey feel the Test to Stay program has effectively kept schools open for in-person learning. 
  • Test to Stay events helped students’ families feel more comfortable and confident sending students to school. 
  • Test to Stay events increased community buy-in for future testing events and mitigation strategies. 

The Utah Department of Health, with support and commitment from the Utah State Board of Education, Utah High School Activities Association, local school districts and schools, researchers at the University of Utah, and Utah’s 13 local health departments, has shown these types of testing programs are not only feasible for K-12 schools to implement statewide, but also important ways to prevent outbreaks in the school setting and greater community.