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Missouri spent $16 million on a COVID testing program for schools. Few districts used it.

 Pattonville School District is one of five districts offering free coronavirus saliva tests for its students, teachers and their families.
Pattonville School District
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Pattonville School District is one of five districts offering free coronavirus saliva tests for its students, teachers and their families.

A Boston biotech company was paid over $16 million in Missouri for its work operating a little-used COVID testing program that only 25 school districts opted into.

Ginkgo Bioworks was originally contracted by the state last year to operate a screening COVID testing program backed by nearly $185 million in federal funds. The program had been slow to get off the ground and launched the day many students returned to the classroom for the 2021-22 school year.

That fall, the state later directed school districts to the company when it also announced a new “test to stay” policy that allowed teachers and students exposed to COVID-19 to remain in the classroom if they continued to test negative for the virus and properly wore a mask.

The state’s contract with Ginkgo Bioworks ended June 30, Lisa Cox, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Senior Services said. Overall, 25 school districts onboarded and 119 schools participated — roughly 5% of the more than 500 school districts and 2,000 schools across the state.

The company ran 25,384 tests of 73,440 swabs, Cox said. Of those, 14,458 were PCR tests, 3,102 were antigen tests and 7,824 were pooled tests — a feature of the screening program that allowed tests to be processed as a batch rather than individually.

Over fiscal years 2022 and 2023, Ginkgo Bioworks was paid $16.67 million by the state health department, according to the state’s accountability portal.

The lack of use meant the contract fell short of the $77 million in federal funds the state health department had originally estimated the emergency contract from Aug. 21, 2021 through Jan. 31, 2022 would cost.

Ginkgo Bioworks had also been hired to launch school testing programs in other states, which similarly saw a small portion of schools take advantage of the services.

A spokesman for Ginkgo said the program was designed in partnership with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to make flexible COVID-19 testing services widely accessible to schools across the state, at no cost to the schools.

“COVID-19 testing is a critical mitigation tool that generates actionable public health data to help school leaders and public health leaders make informed decisions,” the spokesman said in an email. “We are gratified to see the positive impact that testing has had in communities across the country.”

While schools battled numerous COVID outbreaks over the past two years that caused schools to return to virtual learning and in some instances caused districts to shut down their semesters early because of staff shortages caused by COVID-19, generally support for school testing has waned, Cox said.

School districts previously told The Independent that they had already moved forward with their own COVID testing plans by the time the school year had started and the screening program was announced, or that they weren’t interested in pursuing additional testing that would burden staff.

The extent of mitigation measures has been largely optional for schools as Missouri emphasized a local control approach to the virus. While large school districts, primarily in the Kansas City and St. Louis metros, implemented regular testing and mitigation measures like face masks throughout the pandemic, many smaller and rural districts abandoned mandating such measures and made them optional.

The state’s “test to stay” policy later became a point of contention when Donald Kauerauf faced confirmation by the Missouri Senate to be the state health department’s permanent director. Kauerauf was ultimately ousted after the state Capitol was flooded with protesters who demanded lawmakers reject Kauerauf’s nomination.

The remaining federal funds that had been allocated to Missouri to support the screening program can be used for other school testing options, and the bulk of funds has been spent through direct contracts with schools, Cox said.

Contracts with schools also ended June 30, with 147 districts participating and totaling a little over $42 million. In late August, districts had submitted invoices for nearly $22.5 million, Cox said. Contracts weren’t renewed because of the limited scope of funding and changes in how schools are addressing the virus, Cox said.

“For the 22-23 school year, we are encouraging schools to distribute COVID tests to staff and families for home use,” Cox said.

Schools can still receive rapid antigen tests at no cost through the state.

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Tessa Weinberg