DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynolds’ decision to reject $95 million in federal aid for routine COVID-19 testing in schools drew mixed reviews Friday after she made the revelation on a national cable TV forum.
Appearing on the Fox News Channel with four other GOP governors Thursday night from an Orlando studio, Reynolds said her administration informed federal officials in an April 23 letter that Iowa has “ample funding and testing capacity” available for school districts so she was returning $95,029,161 allocated to Iowa to increase testing and safely reopen classrooms as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
Reynolds — who ordered schools closed in March 2020 when COVID-19 hit the state — said she and the Iowa Legislature required schools in February to offer a 100 percent in-person instruction option if they weren’t already as a way to ensure that students were not falling behind from prolonged online and hybrid learning.
“Currently the state has ample funding and testing capacity available to school districts in Iowa to do just that, and our students have been back in school successfully since August,” wrote Kelly Garcia, interim director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official in turning down the money. She said the decision was made in conjunction with the Iowa Department of Education.
On the Fox show, Reynolds touted the law requiring in-person learning and criticized the Democratic administration of President Joe Biden. The president and congressional Democrats pushed through the $1.9 trillion aid package earlier this year without the support of Republicans, who said it was too bloated.
“I think he thinks that COVID just started,” Reynolds told the TV audience. “I just returned $95 million because they sent an additional $95 million to the state of Iowa to get our kids back in the classroom by doing surveillance testing. And I said we’ve been in the classroom since August — here’s your $95 million back.”
According to state public health data, 7,731 Iowa adults in the “education occupation” category had tested positive for the disease as of Friday morning. For children up to age 17, 43,092 had tested positive for the infection — an increase of 85 cases in a 24-hour period, accounting for nearly 23 percent of all the state’s new cases in that period, according to the public health data.
The federal aid for reopening schools carries many caveats, including regular reporting to the federal government. According to a CDC fact sheet, the funds could be used for COVID-19 testing at schools that already were open, school-affiliated programs such as summer camps, school-sponsored functions like graduations and sporting events and at private and tribal schools. The fact sheet also indicates the funds could cover new costs associated with following up on positive tests, including contact tracing.
In her letter, Garcia wrote that “to date, no Iowa schools have claimed expenses for testing supplies or services” but that enough funding was available if needed. The Test Iowa Initiative has been funded under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she wrote, and there are other funds available — including millions from the CARES Act passed under the Trump administration. Her letter does not address why, if those funds have not been needed, they also were not sent back to the federal government.
Garcia’s letter rejecting the $95 million does note that “we ask should the allowable use of this funding change, the state would have the opportunity to seek reconsideration of this funding.”
Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann praised the governor for trying to get life back to normal and pushing to get Iowa kids back in school while providing “the last line of defense for Iowans against the radical policies coming out of the Biden administration.”
But Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville said “returning federal COVID funding during a public health disaster is like drilling holes in a sinking boat.”
“Iowans are hurting and the governor and Republican-controlled Legislature are making it worse by putting politics before public health. Whether it’s small businesses, front-line health care workers, or our public schools, Iowa needs all the help we can muster to get through this pandemic and get our economy going again,” Wahls said in a statement.
Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said Thursday night’s announcement was more evidence that the governor has failed the leadership test.
“At a time when students and schools have faced historic challenges, Reynolds is playing politics instead of helping Iowans recover from the pandemic,” she said. “It’s also disturbing that the governor hid this information from Iowans for nearly a week to break the news — in Florida.”
State Auditor Rob Sand, a Democrat, said Reynolds engaged in a “partisan stunt” that “makes no sense” and cost Iowans aid that could have generated hundreds of jobs to administer and assist tests at schools, sporting events, graduations and conduct contact tracing. Turning down the money, he added, puts students, teachers, administrators and other school staff at more risk of contracting the virus.
Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, called the governor’s decision to return the federal money “disappointing because we need all hands-on-deck right now. But we will continue our focus on funds that will be used to help students make-up for lost time.”
According to the April 23 letter, Iowa has $6.5 million in Elementary and Secondary Emergency School Relief Fund money left over from a 2020 federal coronavirus relief bill and a combined total of about $1.1 billion available for COVID-19 testing through the state Education Department.
Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, praised the governor’s action to return the unneeded federal money as the “fiscally responsible” thing to do.
“We already have a lot of money. We have more money than we need to do that testing,” he said. “So I’m not surprised at all that she didn’t want to waste 95 million taxpayer dollars. We already have enough to do all the tests we need to do so why would we take more?”