Montana schools could have access to $14.4 million to help screen and test students and staff for COVID-19 after a commission nearly unanimously recommended the funding Monday.
The money is part of the roughly $2 billion Montana received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act earlier this year. Lawmakers in the recent legislative session voted to broadly allocate funds and create a group of commissions to review specific proposals and forward them to Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who has final spending approval.
The health commission approved the testing funding recommendation from the state Department of Public Health and Human Services with one lone vote against from Republican state Sen. Bob Keenan, of Bigfork.
“These funds provide financial resources to enable schools to establish COVID-19 training and testing programs to support and maintain in-person learning,” state health department Director Adam Meier told the commission Monday. “ … Schools screening and testing can provide another layer of prevention to protect students, teachers and staff slow the spread of COVID-19.”
Earlier this year the commission recommended $32.2 million for COVID-19 testing in schools, but said only 10% could be used without further backing by the commission; Gianforte approved of that approach.
Meier said the additional funding recommended Monday would “ensure school districts and private schools can apply for and receive these funds in a timely manner in anticipation of the upcoming school year," adding the previous $3.2 million may not have been enough.
The money will be used on an as-needed basis for schools to apply for grants available from Aug. 1 to July 31, 2022.
Schools must spend at least 85% of the money they’re awarded directly on testing materials and services like kits, personal protective equipment, staffing, courier contracts and more. Public and private K-12 schools are eligible, as are school-affiliated summer programs.
Fifty-four schools in the state have already received rapid COVID-19 antigen tests, and most of those schools have begun testing and reporting for their staff and students.
“Several positive cases have been identified, and through rapid detection, swift isolation, and contact tracing, it was possible to minimize further transmission in those settings,” reads the health department’s memo in support of the funding.
In response to a survey the state health department is conducting to gauge interest in testing programs, 25 of the 31 schools that responded expressed an interest in the program to some degree.
In response to a question from the commission, Meier said testing of minor students requires a parent’s consent.
State Rep. Terry Moore, a Republican from Billings, asked Meier about privacy concerns if a student were to test positive.
Meier said schools are familiar with privacy requirements and also work closely with local health departments.
“With that said, as you can probably imagine, oftentimes by process of elimination, people guess what's happening and I think that's certainly something that schools have probably struggled with,” Meier added.
Sharyl Allen, the deputy superintendent of the Office of Public Instruction, also raised concerns about privacy and that a student or staff member who was tested and later out of school could be easily identified, especially in smaller schools.
“It doesn't become difficult to figure these things out,” Allen said. “On the other side of it as we continuously look for how we do everything we can to keep our kids safe, this is one of the elements of the society in which we live today. And it's important to constantly weigh that balance between protecting students at that social-emotional level, and also protecting them at that physical level.”
After the meeting, OPI spokesperson Chris Averill said it was critical to the office that parents were in the driver's seat.
"Parents remain the primary decision-makers for their children’s health matters," Averill said. "DPHHS reached out to the OPI to discuss their use of these ARPA funds and Superintendent Arntzen was pleased to hear of DPHHS’ commitment to parental rights and student privacy rights as part of this voluntary, local control grant opportunity."
The state health department also surveyed the schools that participated in the COVID-19 testing program last school year, and 35 of the schools responded. More than 85% of schools said they were able to offer timely testing to students and staff and two-thirds of schools said they were able to identify positive cases early and prevent large outbreaks by offering additional testing to close contacts right away.
About 60% of schools said the program created peace of mind and 14% said they were able to reopen after offering testing.
Schools who responded to the survey said the testing “allowed us to quickly remove COVID-positive staff from the school environment,” according to results provided by the health department.
Another survey respondent said “It was very stressful at times having seven positive tests in a week in your office. (It) was stressful but certainly staved off more serious spread.”
One school that responded said access to testing allowed them to bring students back on campus.
“Working together we helped prevent the spread of the virus and we were able to sustain full time onsite learning,” the survey report read.
The commission also recommended a slew of other funding Monday, including using a total of $1.6 million in administration funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to expand an employment and training program.
SNAP's Employment and Training Program operates in Missoula, Yellowstone and Lewis and Clark counties, and the state wants to expand that across Montana using the ARPA funds. The program works to connect those who receive SNAP benefits with training to develop their job skills and work experience, leading to better employment.
Though the funding passed on a unanimous vote, Lorianne Burhop, the chief policy officer for the Montana Food Bank Network, raised concerns.
"Please also remember that SNAP (is) a nutrition program," Burhop said. "It's an effective and efficient nutrition program. It's not a jobs program. We would love to see a portion of these administrative dollars go towards increasing access to food."
The commission also approved $1.2 million for programs aimed at helping children from birth to age 3 with early intervention when they have significant developmental delays or disabilities; $310,000 to improve the child protective services system and $1 million a year over five years to address the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and COVID-19 by hiring disease intervention specialists.