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Health department working to set up distribution of COVID testing funds to Idaho schools

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare says school districts will be able to use funds for testing in whatever fashion works best for them. (Photo courtesy of Idaho Education News)

All public and private K-12 schools will have access to the funding, spokesperson says

Gov. Brad Little directed $30 million of COVID-19 relief funding approved during the 2021 legislative session to be used for COVID testing in school districts, but so far, no schools have been able to apply for the funding because the program hasn’t been set up yet.

The $30 million is part of $67.8 million approved by the Idaho Legislature in Senate Bill 1173, a $196 million appropriation bill for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. It included funds for the department’s employees, new programs that were approved and the $67.8 million in general one-time funds from the federal CARES Act passed in 2020.

At a press conference on Aug. 12 encouraging Idahoans to get vaccinated as case numbers continue to climb, especially among the unvaccinated population, Little announced he would direct the funds to be available for K-12 schools across the state.

“We have some funds that we’ve got set aside actually from the last two years for whatever we need to do and we’re making those available. … There were some funds that were available that we didn’t — we didn’t tap into, and we’re making those available today so that school administrators can plan on them,” Little said at the conference.

The Idaho Legislature had the opportunity to approve $40 million in funds specifically for COVID testing in schools from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, and while it passed the Senate by a 26-3 vote, it failed in the House in a 28-41 vote. Legislators cited concerns over data collection and called testing in schools a “very low priority.”

Boise School District started its fall session on Monday and is requiring masks for students and faculty, but communications staff did not return a call requesting comment on whether they would request funds for testing.

Moscow School District Superintendent Greg Bailey said they are awaiting more information on the program before making a decision on requesting funds, while Coeur d’Alene School District Communications Director Scott Maben said he doesn’t think they will need to apply for it.

“We haven’t had a testing program in our district,” Maben told the Idaho Capital Sun. The district received VAULT Medical cheek swab tests from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare in 2020 and made them available for anyone who wanted one. Maben said the district still has plenty of the tests on hand.

“I don’t sense that we’ve even had a lot of people request (the VAULT test), we’ve handed out some,” Maben said. “Most people have had fairly good access to the testing sites we do have here in Kootenai County, so that’s what folks have relied on for testing.”

Kelly Petroff, director of communications for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, said all public and private K-12 schools and school districts in Idaho will have access to the funding for COVID testing.

“They can design and implement the screening program that works best for them,” Petroff said. “School districts and private schools may choose to implement targeted screening efforts or may even choose to screen based on levels of community transmission. The decision is completely theirs.”

Targeted screening efforts could include staff or teachers only, student athletes only, or other groups as needed. The goal is to be as flexible as possible with the funding because every school and community is unique, Petroff said.

“The goal for this funding for testing is to support safe, in-person instruction in K-12 schools,” Petroff said. “Screening testing provides another important layer of prevention to protect students, teachers, and staff, and slows the spread of SARS-CoV-2. While it is critical for schools to remain open for academic, social and emotional benefits, it is equally important to do so safely, and we want to provide all the support we can to support their efforts.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.