State officials have added another $3.4 million to a contract originally estimated at $87 million to provide statewide K-12 Covid testing that has had poor buy-in from schools and consequently has struggled to meet expectations.
A document from the Pennsylvania Treasurer’s Office in late March shows a change order was created for the already existing contract, tacking on to the purchase 100,000 over-the-counter rapid antigen test kits at a cost of $34, raising the overall contract by $3.4 million.
The purchase actually buys 200,000 individual tests because each kit contains two testing units.
Using individual test kits marks a departure from how the original testing contract with Ginkgo Bioworks, a Massachusetts company, intended to operate.
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The original plan deployed “pooled” testing that would take “nasal swab samples from all consenting individuals in a classroom and [run] them as a single test,” as a “simple and scalable way to easily test many students at once while minimizing resource strain,” according to a press release from Gov. Wolf’s office.
However, the pooled testing program never caught on with schools and has floundered.
Although the contract was in place by the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, state data shows only 197,227 people have been tested as of June 1. There are an estimated 1.7 million K-12 school children in the commonwealth, along with tens of thousands of school personnel who were also eligible for the testing.
The original contract is valued at an “estimated” $87 million, but a line from the contract notes that “Costs for testing will only be incurred on actual usage of testing,” which indicates that the final payout should come in far under the original estimated amount but does not explain the need for the additional expenses.
Neither the Department of Health or Ginkgo Bioworks returned requests for comment on the contract addition of the 100,000 over-the-counter test kits.
In a March budget hearing with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill asked if the department had any discussions yet of what the state might do with any leftover monies. A representative for the PDE said the discussions had not happened, and would most likely take place within the DOH, given that the contract is under the DOH.
In the same hearing, Phillips-Hill also indicated that the contract was funded by grant monies from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The testing was completely optional for school districts, and from the outset it was quickly apparent many could not be tempted.
By February, only 750 of the state’s more than 5,000 charter, private, and public schools had enrolled in the program.
“That’s not enough,” Acting Secretary of Health Keara Klinepeter said at the time, according to Spotlight PA.
[C]oronavirus transmission was lower in the schools that regularly tested their students and staff than in the wider community.
The Democratic caucus in the state Senate referred our questions to State Sen. Art Haywood, who ultimately declined to comment. The Republican caucus in the state Senate also declined to comment, but did provide the video clip of Sen. Phillips from the March hearing.
In-school testing of even asymptomatic students has been seen as one of many techniques that could not only help keep children in the class as opposed to tele-learning, but also could reduce the reliance on masking, which has debatable efficacy yet creates an annoyance for students trying to learn.
School testing has been shown in one real-world experiment, to have shown to greatly reduce the numbers of students who contract Covid.
“Five schools in Los Angeles took part in a pilot COVID-19 testing program. From late March to late May, the schools all together administered over 200 tests a week — peaking at almost 2,000 tests a week in late April,” a report from Science News notes.
“During this time, the overall test positivity rate in these schools (0.01 percent) was much lower than the positivity rate for Los Angeles County (ranging between 0.5 percent and 1 percent). This indicates that coronavirus transmission was lower in the schools that regularly tested their students and staff than in the wider community.”
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports