Louisiana granted $140 million to do COVID-19 testing in schools. Not all schools want the help.

Two public school districts and the Archdiocese of New Orleans declined funding for preventative testing

By: - July 28, 2021 1:39 pm

In this photo from June 30, a line for COVID-19 testing forms outside Andrew H. Wilson Charter School in New Orleans. On Tuesday, July 21, New Orleans Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis said there won’t be any in-person instruction in the city’s schools before September. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)

Louisiana is offering widespread, routine COVID-19 testing on a voluntary basis to both public and private school communities during the 2021-2022 school year, but not all districts want the assistance.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has given Louisiana $140 million to do regular — sometimes weekly — testing of students, teachers and staff across the state throughout the school year. Studies show that routine testing can help control COVID-19 outbreaks more quickly in schools, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

The COVID-19 testing would come at no cost to the school districts or participants. In fact, individuals who take part in the weekly testing would get paid at least $5 per test, according to documents provided by the Department of Health. Schools will also receive money for participating in the program.

Still, most schools have not made a decision about whether they will join the program, even though the first deadline to sign up to participate has already passed. Schools and school districts were supposed to let the Louisiana Department of Health know by July 23 if they wanted the free testing to start in August. For those who opted in, the rounds of testing start August 23, according to documents provided by the Department of Health.

So far, only six school systems — New Orleans, East Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge special schools, Jefferson, Bogalusa and Zachary — have said they will participate in the testing program. Ten charter and private schools have also opted into the program, according to the health department.

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The health department is trying to be flexible with its deadline. It has decided to give school districts more time to decide if they want to participate in the testing plan. Several school administrators said they needed to consult with their school boards before making a decision about the help, said Kevin Litten, a spokesman for the health department.

But two public school districts, a Catholic system and one independent school have already determined that they do not want to do preventative testing of their staff and students. The Washington Parish school system, St. Charles Parish Public Schools, Archdiocese of New Orleans schools and St. John Lutheran School in New Orleans opted out of the free testing help already, according to the health department.

Washington Parish schools Superintendent Frances Varnado declined to comment this week on why the school district turned down testing support.

St. Charles Parish Public Schools plans to use the state’s testing resources, but only if it experiences a COVID-19 outbreak on one of its campuses, said Stevie Crovetto, the school system’s director of public information, in an email Tuesday.

Crovetto also said St. Charles schools already has a contract with a private testing company, though it’s not clear whether that testing would be as frequent as what the state is offering. It’s also not obvious why St. Charles schools would choose to pay for its own testing program, when the health department is offering the same services at no cost.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans said its schools did not have the staff required to make the testing program work. The archdiocese’s school families also “have not experienced a challenge in testing availability or access,” wrote Sarah McDonald, a spokesperson for the school system.

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Schools that  choose not to participate in mass testing can decide to participate at a later date — as long the funding is still available. The health department also said it will assist with any testing that has to be done in the aftermath of a COVID-19 outbreak, regardless of whether the school is participating in the overall testing initiative.

Those schools who have chosen to participate in the mass testing program have two options for doing so.

Under the first option, the schools can run their own routine testing program using rapid tests. The results of each test would be collected by school staff and available in 15 to 20 minutes. Each school participating would receive $30,000 for doing so, plus the materials and training needed to run the testing program. The school district would receive another $40,000 on top of the grants to individual schools.

Under the second option, the health department would send a testing team to the school to conduct weekly testing. The tests administered would be PCR tests, which are more accurate than rapid tests. The test results would be available the following day, according to the health department. Each school would receive $14,500 for participating as well as the $40,000 sent to the overall school district.

Under both options, students and school staff would only be tested on a voluntary basis with their consent. Parents and guardians would have to give permission for students to participate. The health department has a goal of having at least 20 percent of the population of each participating school tested regularly.

All of the people taking part in the testing program will also be paid on a monthly basis for doing so. They would get paid $5 per test for a minimum of $15 per month for three tests, according to the health department. The maximum monthly payment would be $25.

Though many Louisiana schools start in as little as two or three weeks, several people involved in statewide education policy said they hadn’t been briefed on the massive testing program yet and weren’t aware it was happening.

“I don’t know if that is on the horizon for school districts or not,” said Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, when asked about testing in schools this week.

Faulk said testing hadn’t come up during a recent conference call with the Louisiana Department of Health and school officials in Northeast Louisiana. The focus had mostly been on vaccination campaigns — and what to do if children 12 years and under got approved for the vaccine, he said.

Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, also was in the dark about the mass testing campaign.

“I wasn’t aware that was happening, but I’m happy to hear about it,” he said.

Carter said very few school systems were able to do widespread testing of staff or students last year because they didn’t have the resources to pull it off. He said there is also some confusion about what COVID-19 prevention efforts will occur in schools this year because each public school district is in charge of coming up with its own plan.

While frequent testing might be welcome in more urban and suburban school districts, Carter said he wouldn’t expect rural school districts to participate. He said many rural districts face backlash when they implement COVID-19 prevention efforts, especially if it is an initiative funded by the federal government.

“[The rural school districts] are not going to do anything controversial or anything that would cause their parents not to want to send their children to school,” Carter said.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers — which includes 18,000 teachers and school support staff — has not reached a consensus on mass testing or mask mandates in schools yet. Carter said his members live around the state and have different opinions on COVID-19 protocols.

The Centers for Disease Control updated their masking guidelines Tuesday to recommend that people in schools — including children — wear masks while inside, even if they have been vaccinated.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.

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