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Hundreds of millions of dollars are going unspent for COVID testing in public schools

 A pharmacist administers a pediatric COVID-19 vaccine in Austin in November.
Michael Minasi/KUT
A pharmacist administers a pediatric COVID-19 vaccine in Austin in November.

Despite rising cases and renewed concern over the virus and a new variant, hundreds of millions in dollars has not yet been used.

From Texas Standard:

Only a fraction of federal monies for COVID-19 testing in public schools has been spent in Texas so far. The state has $800 million available to facilitate testing for students and educators, but has used less than $4 million.

Dallas Morning News Education Lab reporter Talia Richman tells Texas Standard that a combination of factors are to blame: a lack of school nurses to administer tests; schools having used their existing backlog of tests; and even parents resistant to testing. But Richman notes schools have to use the funding by the end of the school year or risk losing it.

Listen to the interview with Richman in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more about why this money is going unspent and what efforts could help incentivize more schools to use it.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Let's begin with this federal funding for testing in schools. Am I right that less than $4 million of it has been spent by Texas schools so far? 

Talia Richman: So the numbers as of Dec. 7 show that public schools had spent about $3.6 million, while private schools had spent about $128,000. So really, just a fraction of what has been made available to them.

With all of this money, why aren't schools taking advantage?

I wish there was a simple answer. So, in some districts, officials said that they're still working through the logistical hurdles of standing up a testing site and all the paperwork and other kinds of red tape that comes along with using grant money.

Some districts are finding that families are largely uninterested in getting their children tested on campus, or they feel like they can just go to a Walgreens or a CVS or a place in the community that is already doing testing. And, you know, school nurses are already pretty stretched thin by everything that's going on this year, and some districts feel they didn't want to put another burden on those nurses.

The state also thinks that school districts are still working through their allotment of rapid tests from last year. So maybe if they have a stockpile of those; they're using those tests instead of using this new federal money. And they also think, you know, hey, there's this pediatric vaccine; maybe the demand for testing is just not as high this year.

You've mentioned that some nurses feel overwhelmed already by what they're having to deal with. Yet if COVID spreads more rapidly in schools, one would think that it could get a whole lot worse if the testing were not done.

The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] says that testing can be a really valuable tool in making sure schools stay open because it catches those infections early and allows people to quarantine if they need to, or know that they need to quarantine. So I think that especially with the new variant, schools could be watching and potentially tapping into these funds soon, and "soon" is kind of a keyword because these grant funds expire at the end of the school year. So there's really a pressing need to spend this massive allotment quickly.

And yet do you see any schools stepping up to take advantage of these resources? Is there any issue about them not knowing that these resources are available?

It might be that. I think, there are so many districts in Texas – more than a thousand – that the answers are pretty variable. But I think that there is going to be an additional push from the state to get these funds spent.

Of the $800 million, about $221 million is set aside for a separate grant that can be used both for testing and for other coronavirus prevention strategies, such as vaccine promotion or purchasing portable air filters. So districts actually had until Dec. 9, Thursday, to apply for those grants. So we'll see if that additional push kind of triggers more spending and more use of this money.

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Wells Dunbar