When COVID-19 cases began to rise dramatically in Utah in November 2020, schools faced a difficult choice. They could maintain normal activities, giving students valuable in-person instruction and social interaction but risking spread of COVID-19. Or they could send students home, keeping them safe from disease but putting their education, emotional health and social well-being at risk.
With a goal of preserving the best of both worlds, Utah Department of Health (UDOH) implemented two COVID-19 testing programs in collaboration with local health departments and Utah schools. These programs helped students participate in extracurricular activities and stay in school while likely reducing spread of the virus.
“For most students, being able to attend school in-person and participate in extracurricular activities is best for their learning as well as their social and emotional well-being,” says Adam Hersh, senior author on the study, professor of pediatrics at University of Utah Health, and Utah HERO investigator. Hersh collaborated with UDOH to study these testing programs. “When combined with other prevention strategies, most importantly masking, these testing strategies helped keep our schools safe and open.”
Testing allowed for the completion of 95% of more than 11,000 high school extracurricular competition events and saved an estimated 109,752 in-person instruction days for students. The results were published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).
“Before the school year started, our school communities advocated for safe in-person education and participation in extracurricular activities,” says Kendra Babitz, COVID-19 State Testing Coordinator, UDOH. “Their dedication to maintaining optimal environments for learning and growth made these programs a success and kept kids in school.”
One COVID-19 testing program, “Test to Play”, was implemented in 66% (127 of 193) of Utah’s public high schools. In order to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports, students took part in mandatory, rapid antigen testing every 14 days.
“Test to Stay” was presented as an option when schools had outbreaks. Of the 28 high schools that reported outbreaks, 13 elected to conduct school-wide Test to Stay events. Students who tested positive were required to isolate for 10 days while students who tested negative could continue in-person learning.
Between November 30, 2020, and March 20, 2021, schools reported 165,078 tests. Among the 59,552 students tested, 1,886 (3.2%) had a positive result.
The study authors say that by identifying these positive cases, the testing programs likely helped reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools and the community by enabling the students who tested positive to isolate while their close contacts could quarantine.
“Utah’s high school testing programs could not have been successful without the willingness, flexibility, and innovation of school staff,” said Commander William A. Lanier, lead author of the study and U.S. Public Health Service officer who was assigned to the UDOH to help with COVID-19 testing. “Their hard work helped preserve extracurricular and in-person learning opportunities for Utah students during a very challenging time.”
Julie Kieferassociate director, Science Communications, University of Utah Health