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Without Congressional action, schools might not be able to test for COVID

A health care worker tests a student for COVID-19.
A health care provider tests a student at Pleasure Ridge Park High School for COVID-19 in September 2021.

The federal funding that made widespread testing possible for Jefferson County Public Schools during the COVID pandemic is all used up. Without more, next school year could look far different than last.

JCPS was running, on average, 25,000 COVID tests a week last school year — at drive-through sites, and classrooms and school nurses offices across the district. Not just for students and staff, but also for their families.

JCPS District Health Manager Eva Stone said the massive testing effort was “critically important” to the district’s pandemic response.

“I think people in the community really appreciate having the availability of testing,” Stone told WFPL News. 

So did Stone. It allowed her to keep an eye on the spread of COVID in schools, contact trace, and call off school when cases were too high. Eventually “test-to-stay” and “test-to-play” programs allowed students to attend school and extracurriculars who would otherwise be quarantined at home. 

But the federal funds that made widespread testing possible are gone now. Kentucky spent the last of the millions through the American Rescue Plan Act earlier this month. Meanwhile, Congress has so far failed to pass another COVID spending package, after a $10 billion deal died in the Senate over a dispute about immigration restrictions.

That leaves JCPS and districts across the country unsure if they’ll be able to hold the widespread testing Stone believes was so crucial.

“We had a successful school year this year, albeit challenging,” Stone said. “But it was only successful because of all the things that were done to help ensure that there were measures in place to help keep students and staff safe, and limit the spread of COVID in our schools.”

“We're just kind of on pins and needles until we find out what Congress is going to do,” she said.

Congressional leaders, however, may have to go back to the drawing board, and it’s not clear there is an appetite to send more funding to states that are already “awash in money,” one former aid to Mitch McConnell told The New York Times.

JCPS alone has received more $578 million in federal pandemic relief funds. Asked why the district can’t use some of that funding on testing, Stone said that’s not what it’s meant for.

Most of JCPS’ federal pandemic relief money comes from three rounds of Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief packages (ESSER). Congress required that districts spend at least 20% of the third ESSER package on catching students up academically.

“Saying that we're ‘awash’ in federal funds right now, it is really a bit of a stretch, if you think of what all students have missed and what work is being done to try and catch students up,” Stone said.

Stone is hopeful Congress acts before the fall, when some experts predict a surge of omicron sub-variants.

News Youth Reporting
Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.