New federally funded COVID-19 testing program planned for schools

    COVID-19 test swab and gloved hands testing demonstration
    A COVID-19 test swab and gloved hands testing demonstration. (Prachatai | Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    With continued concern about COVID-19 variant strains to which younger people are more susceptible than previous versions of the novel coronavirus, Wisconsin’s health and education agencies will set up a COVID-19 testing program in schools.

    The Department of Health Services (DHS) and Gov. Tony Evers announced plans Tuesday to offer the testing program for teachers, staff and students, backed by $175 million in federal funds. It will be part of a “comprehensive COVID-19 mitigation approach to assist schools in operating safely,” DHS said in a press announcement.

    “Testing would be offered on a voluntary basis and would not be mandated,” according to DHS.

    Testing for COVID-19 “is one tool we can use to help decrease disruption in classrooms across the state,” Evers stated.

    DHS reported the department will collaborate with the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to develop the testing program, making use of the state’s existing COVID-19 testing infrastructure.

    State officials sent a survey last week asking school districts and private schools about what their needs were for a testing program. According to DHS, a choice of testing options will be offered schools this spring and summer, with more options in the fall semester for the 2021-2022 school year.

    Calling COVID-19 testing “a critical part of Wisconsin’s COVID-19 response,” DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake stated that the new funding would make possible a school testing program “that supports the safety and wellbeing of teachers, staff members, and students throughout the state.”

    The $175 million comes from $10 billion that the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has set aside for school COVID-19 testing nationwide, as well as $2.25 billion to expand testing for underserved populations. The funds were included as part of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) that Congress enacted in March.

    In related action Tuesday, Evers announced a $50 million program of grants to nonprofit organizations to fund programs for learning opportunities and mental health support for school-age children in the state. Up to half of the amount will be offered for programs in the 2021 summer months and the other half for the 2021-2022 school year and the summer of 2022.

    The money comes from the state’s ARPA allotment. “Community and educational organizations have worked around the clock this past year to support our kids and make sure they have the resources they need to be safe and successful,” Evers stated.

    The program will offer grants of up to $500,000 per organization and will be administered by the Department of Administration. 

    Updated Tuesday, 4/20/2021, 2:33 p.m.

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.