Amid the largest school outbreak yet, officials hope a new testing program will keep Park City students in class
Data shows 10% of high school students and staff have or have had COVID
Park City’s secondary students returned to school on Monday after nearly two weeks of remote learning, but as per usual during the pandemic, it was far from a typical school day.
Throughout the morning, the district summoned 900 students from Treasure Mountain Junior High School and Park City High School to the high school gym for rapid COVID-19 antigen tests on the first day of what officials call the “Test to Stay” program.
And in the parking lot outside, TestUtah staffers were conducting rapid tests for members of the Park City community, a program that was slated to continue for four more sessions into February after apparent community interest.
Park City Superintendent Jill Gildea said that the 900 school tests revealed only two cases of COVID-19, and indicated the district was pleased with how the program functioned and the results it returned.
The district moved its older students to remote learning on Jan. 13 after case numbers spiked, reaching 16 in the high school.
But the case counts are even higher after the break, with 29 active cases among high school students and 11 at the junior high as of Monday, according to data published by the district.
Combining past cases with current ones show that about 10% of the high school student and staff population has or has had COVID.
State guidelines recommend shutting a school or implementing a rapid antigen testing program if a school reaches a 15-case threshold among students and staff. The Park City School District has opted for the latter in an effort to continue in-person learning even as the high school has nearly double the threshold number of cases.
“What we are seeing is that cases seemed to increase following the winter break and have now leveled out,” Gildea wrote in an email to The Park Record on Monday. She continued in a separate email, “We will now continue with a ‘Test To Stay’ protocol to ensure our students have the opportunity to access in person learning and to ensure our staff remains safe and healthy within the school setting.”
Gildea said that the district will continue to enforce health guidelines including mask wearing, hand washing, cleaning surfaces and maintaining distance.
Gildea said the district would test every secondary student and staff member once every two weeks, which would be about 155 tests per day. The tests return results in about 15 minutes.
The rapid antigen tests are less accurate than the gold-standard PCR tests, officials have said, but are less invasive, less expensive and take less time. The tests have been cleared by state officials for this purpose and Summit County uses similar technology in its business testing program to help employees who’ve been exposed to COVID-19 end quarantines and return to work.
The TestUtah program also uses rapid antigen tests. Staffers there working out of a specially outfitted van tested 220 community members on the first day the tests were offered last Tuesday.
When students returned to schools Monday, district-published data showed that there were 48 cases district-wide, 29 among high school students and staff members and 11 at Treasure Mountain.
The Park City School District had previously resisted calls to move to remote learning and Gildea and Board of Education members have stressed the importance of in-person learning. Teachers, students, administrators and parents have detailed the shortcomings of remote learning, especially in the early days of the pandemic.
Some teachers, however, have indicated that in-person learning without mitigation strategies to allow for increased social distancing poses an unacceptable health risk.
The South Summit School District opted for “quasi-quarantine” weeks after Thanksgiving and winter break in an effort to stem an expected surge of COVID-19 following holiday gatherings.
According to a fact sheet the district presented to the South Summit Board of Education, those remote weeks saw the highest numbers of new cases of COVID-19.
“The online learning weeks have been extremely beneficial for not spreading the virus at school,” the fact sheet says.
Gildea said the virtual learning period at PCHS and Treasure Mountain allowed the Park City School District time to ramp up the massive testing effort.
Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough has said that schools have proven to be safer than he expected before they opened last fall, and has indicated that students might be less likely to spread the virus in a school setting where health guidelines are enforced.
Contact tracing has revealed the vast majority of spread comes from small group gatherings outside of official settings, health officials have said.
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