Now students will only be required to get tested once at the start of the semester.
The decision to walk back the measure came Tuesday, shortly before it was supposed to take effect for the coming semester. Dave Woolstenhulme, the commissioner who oversees the state’s public and technical colleges, said they’ll instead be taking “a more refined approach.”
“We are building on what we learned this past fall and are confident these steps will help keep our entire higher education community safe over the coming months,” he added in a news release.
If students don’t comply, they may be reassigned to entirely online courses.
The mandate still applies to only those taking at least one class with in-person instruction and those living in campus housing. Students who have already elected to complete the semester from home will not be required to get a test.
In addition to the initial testing, colleges also will continue administering nasal swabs for those experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. And contact tracing will be a priority to identify anyone who may have been exposed to the virus on campus.
There will also be random testing of both students and staff to try to find and isolate asymptomatic cases.
“We worked closely with state public health leaders and those at Utah’s colleges and universities to develop a more refined approach to testing that requires fewer tests and greater flexibility for our institutions to focus on areas that will have the greatest impact,” Woolstenhulme said. “It’s important we stay vigilant in our efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19 as we return for a new semester.”
The new plan doesn’t alleviate all concerns, acknowledged Trisha Dugovic, spokesperson for the Utah System of Higher Education. But the hope is that it helps with some.
“It wasn’t so much that there was a lack of testing supply, but that after a lot of collaboration and discussion, this plan was developed to use the tests on hand in the most effective way (better tracking spread and stopping it),” she said in an email.
And “the institutions anticipate significant cost savings associated with randomized testing and believe there will be improved compliance with a randomized testing protocol,” she said.
The idea is to be more targeted and less wasteful with similar results.
When state leaders first proposed testing college students on a weekly basis, it was intended as an effort to limit spread in the age group that accounts for the most cases and the most spread in Utah — but who often don’t show symptoms.
“These young people can spread it very, very prolifically and rapidly,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, who championed the measure at the time it was announced.
On Wednesday, he maintained that increased testing is vital for stopping transmission. But Adams added that he appreciates universities “stepping up to find sustainable solutions to this ongoing challenge.”
The concern is that young people get the virus and then take it home to older parents or grandparents, who are more likely to suffer serious complications and die from COVD-19.
Each college also will still be able to conduct additional tests if they choose. The University of Utah plans to move forward with testing its students who live in the dorms weekly, said spokesperson Chris Nelson. And the school intends to offer asymptomatic testing, as well, for those interested and worried they may have the virus after an exposure.
Utah State will be using rapid antigen tests so students can get results within an hour. And BYU, which is the first in the state to return this month, said it will also double down on requiring masks and social distancing on campus — and if students don’t comply, all courses could be moved online.
“This is not a new normal,” said the school’s president, Kevin Worthen, in a recorded message to campus. “Demonstrating a loving, genuine concern for the welfare of our neighbor is actually written into our BYU mission statement. It’s who we are.”