Analysis: A $30 million testing plan won’t erase schools’ COVID-19 challenges

When Gov. Brad Little held an Aug. 12 news conference at Nampa High School, urging Idahoans to get the COVID-19 vaccine, he also said he would siphon $30 million of federal money into school COVID-19 testing. The plan is starting to take shape, and schools could be able to register for the program in the next couple weeks. Sami Edge/Idaho EdNews

With the delta variant posing an added risk to kids — and casting a grim shadow over a school year that is barely under way — Gov. Brad Little hopes $30 million of Uncle Sam’s money will help.

He will spend federal coronavirus stimulus money to help schools test their students for COVID-19.

With kids under 12 ineligible for the coronavirus vaccine, and vaccination rates for 12- to 17-year-olds ranging from 20 to 29 percent, the testing would at least help schools identify cases and potential outbreaks.

But it’s not that simple.

Because the testing program is voluntary, it won’t do any good in some schools and districts.

And even where the tests take place, parents might not get any data they can use to make informed decisions about their kids’ health and safety.

How did we get here?

Before looking at the obstacles, let’s review the short history.

On Aug. 12, Little announced a testing plan that overrode the Legislature, rankled a hardline adversary — and, evidently, caught many educators off guard.

Through executive action, Little will earmark $30 million for testing, less than four months after the Idaho House rejected a similar plan with a $40.3 million pricetag.

Sadly, the pandemic picture has changed since that House vote — and not for the better. New coronavirus case numbers approached 5,000 last week, triple the rate from late April. In that same timeframe, vaccinations have dropped by more than half. It’s a particularly perilous time, underscoring the importance of real-time data.

That hasn’t stopped the Idaho Freedom Foundation from renewing its opposition to testing in schools, this time on process. The group doesn’t outright accuse Little of doing anything illegal, but instead decries the flood of federal money flowing into state government, and the wide spending latitude attached to it. “The K-12 COVID-19 testing expense is only the beginning of the fiscal incontinence that is coming to Idaho,” legislative affairs director Fred Birnbaum wrote last week.

How will this play out?

Because the testing plan is voluntary, there’s no way to predict exactly where the $30 million will wind up going.

Several of the state’s largest school districts are wrestling with the plan. The Boise School District is seeking more information from Little’s office, while the Nampa and Idaho Falls districts haven’t decided what to do.

It’s also unclear what will happen in two districts that reported some of last year’s highest K-12 coronavirus case numbers. The West Ada and Bonneville districts didn’t respond to inquiries Wednesday. A third district that reported high case numbers last year has no interest in a share of the testing money. “We haven’t had a testing program in our district and do not expect to start one,” Coeur d’Alene district spokesman Scott Maben said in an email Wednesday.

School officials aren’t talking much about the program, said Quinn Perry, the Idaho School Boards Association’s deputy director.

“To be honest, right now, boards and administrators are undertaking an enormous balancing act by navigating a more contagious and deadly variant of the virus, and the extreme pressure by their patrons whether or not they require facial coverings,” she said Wednesday. “I’m guessing that the testing money is falling a little lower on the list of priorities but will become a welcomed — and quite frankly, an essential — resource as the school year begins.”

The money won’t be available for at least the next couple weeks. But Elke Shaw-Tulloch, administrator for the Department of Health and Welfare’s public health division, is hearing some initial interest, and she hopes it will pan out.

“We hope that making this money as flexible as possible to meet (schools) local needs will increase the participation even more,” Shaw-Tulloch said during a media briefing Tuesday.

What will Idahoans learn from these tests?

Hard to say.

The $30 million program will be designed with flexibility in mind. Schools will be able to spend the money on test kits, or hiring testing coordinators and support staff to paying contractors to do the job. Similarly, the schools won’t be required to report much to the state — aside from the number of tests, the positive results. And that reporting is really designed to track how the money is spent, not the spread of the disease.

The state will make these positive case numbers public. But don’t expect a full report on K-12 cases. Heading into a second pandemic fall, Health and Welfare is trying to figure out a new gameplan.

A year ago, Health and Welfare cobbled together weekly numbers by looking at media reports, the hodgepodge of data on district websites, and investigations into positive test results. Those investigations are crucial — because lab reports contain no information about where a COVID-positive student goes to school.

But those investigations are also hit or miss. Investigators ran into “increasingly less cooperation” over the course of the 2020-21 school year, deputy state epidemiologist Kathryn Turner said Tuesday. If parents don’t respond, or won’t talk, there’s no way to assign a case to the appropriate school.

“It’s really difficult to do a standardized statewide report,” Turner said.

What do we know, before testing begins?

As schools reopen, the numbers that are available point to one thing. Compared to previous strains of the coronavirus, the delta variant threatens to hit schools harder.

Yes, school-age children still account for only a tenth of Idaho’s coronavirus cases, and no child is among the 2,300 Idahoans who have died from COVID-19. But child case numbers are already rising — and those numbers don’t yet reflect the fact that kids are back in close quarters, in classrooms and lunchrooms and school gyms.

David Peterman — a pediatrician with the Primary Health Medical Group — rattled off some alarming numbers from Primary’s clinics. For the week of July 7, Primary Health logged six positive test results for 5- to 18-year-olds. By last week, that number had soared to 123, a twentyfold increase.

“If you do that math, you can’t get more frightening than that,” Peterman told reporters Tuesday.

So, let’s sum up the prospects for fall.

More cases in schools, and fewer kids wearing masks in common areas.

More COVID-19 testing in schools — but, potentially, less data about outbreaks.

That’s also frightening.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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