The House and Senate voted to disperse $1.2 billion in federal pandemic relief funds including $150.8 million for COVID-19 tests for schools.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday praised the bill’s near-unanimous passage in both chambers. She said the funding would deliver on Democrats’ and Republicans’ shared goals of keeping students learning in school, and recruiting and retaining health care workers.
The bulk of the funding — $667 million – is earmarked for the Department of Health and Human Services to expand laboratory testing capacity and to invest in recruitment, retention, and training of health care workers.
Those measures will keep communities healthier, which makes it safer for students to be in school, bill sponsor Julie Calley said Thursday.
“We’ve seen very clearly that statistically our kids learn better when they are in person, so we want to ensure that opportunity,” said Calley, a Portland Republican. “We don’t want to see any further learning loss.”
Keeping students in classrooms has been a priority for Republican lawmakers including House Education Chairperson Pamela Hornberger, who blasted Flint and Detroit administrators after December’s omicron surge prompted temporary shifts to virtual learning.
Whitmer, a Democrat, agreed during her annual address to the Legislature last month, that districts should return to in-person learning.
Many school districts already have their own COVID testing programs but some have struggled to source enough rapid tests. Detroit Public Schools Community District has been testing employees and students weekly since last spring. Detroit uses polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which require at least 24 hours for results but are more accurate than the rapid tests Calley’s bill would provide.
“Right now, the issue of access is not funding but supply. To sustain any long-term ‘test-to-stay’ program we need access to rapid tests. This is critical to keeping our students in school and removing COVID as the barrier to improved student attendance and learning,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said Thursday.
Test-to-stay programs are some districts’ alternative to sending students home if they were exposed to someone at school who tested positive for COVID.
Calley’s bill provides districts options. They can receive tests directly through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which Calley says has priority access to the supply chain. Or, if distribution gets backed up, districts can buy tests on their own and file for state reimbursement.
The test shortage was exacerbated by the Biden administration’s promise to mail 500 million free tests to Americans who requested them. Manufacturers have begun stepping up production in an attempt to meet the demand.
The state previously distributed 175,000 free antigen tests to parents, students and staff through the MI Backpack Home Test Program.
Additionally, schools are slated to receive other funds from the appropriation including:
· $50 million to support school-based COVID testing, contact tracing, vaccine distribution, and mitigation efforts. These funds can also be used to purchase and distribute at-home test kits to staff and students.
· $14.9 million to administer COVID tests to students and staff at both public and private schools.
· $250,000 to expand work-based programs or health service academies for high schoolers interested in medical careers.
The supplemental funding is part of the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which was intended to support public health and economic recovery after the pandemic.