The Idaho House has just killed Senate-passed legislation authorizing spending $40.3 million in federal COVID aid funds on voluntary COVID-19 testing in both public and private schools next year, with opponents decrying testing as unneeded and one even claiming falsely that kids can’t carry the COVID-19 virus. Backers said the testing funds are needed to keep kids in school in person next year, but they were outvoted 28-41. You can read my full story here at idahopress.com (subscription required), or pick up Wednesday's edition of the Idaho Press.
“This is just more government,” declared Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard.
Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, told the House, “It’s been proven time and time again scientifically that children are not carriers.” State figures show 20,893 COVID-19 infections to date among children under 18 in Idaho, including 2,877 in children ages 0-4; 7,179 in children ages 5-12; and 10,841 in those age 13-17.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, “While fewer children have been sick with COVID-19 compared to adults, children can be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, can get sick from COVID-19, and can spread the virus that causes COVID-19 to others.”
Nichols said, “Our kids should never have been out of school like they have to begin with.”
Rep. Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony, said, “We have so many other issues in our state that need to be addressed. This is a very low priority as far as I’m concerned. Roads, people are asking for education money, there are other issues that need to be addressed. … I will be a big ‘no’ on this.”
Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, urged support for the bill. “Thousands of fellow Idahoans have died. This is essential,” he said. To date, Idaho has recorded 2,034 deaths from COVID-19. “Please help us send our kids, help send my kids back to school safely,” he said.
Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, drew laughter when he said, “My green light will be as much to aid in the housing crisis as to aid in the coronavirus crisis … because if I go home having voted against something to help keep kids in school, I won’t have a place to sleep.”
Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, the bill’s House sponsor, said voluntary testing for both teachers and students is essential to keeping schools open for in-person learning. “This has been the strategy that our universities have used in Idaho to stay open, and it’s been very successful, allowed them to quickly contain outbreaks and identify where issues are,” she said.
The bill left testing plans up to the school districts or private schools that opt to apply for the funds. Rep. Matt Bundy, R-Mountain Home, said his local district contracts with a local medical provider for testing.
Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, read a message from a constituent who said her son had to quarantine at home for 10 days three times because he was exposed to someone at school who tested positive. “It’s not getting them back to school, it’s finding reasons to keep them out,” she said.
Troy responded, “If they are tested, they aren’t going to have to stay home for 10 days and quarantine. They can tell if they have COVID.” Plus, she added, “If your school district doesn’t want to do this, they don’t have to do it.” Responding to a question from Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, Troy said parental consent is required for all testing of students.
But the House voted the bill down. It had passed the Senate on a 26-3 vote on April 22; the funds are specifically designated in the American Rescue Plan Act to cover COVID testing costs for both public and private schools.
After that vote, the House recessed until 1 p.m.
Earlier in its session this morning, the House had voted narrowly to approve the Medicaid budget for next year, which passed 36-34 and now goes to the governor’s desk; the budget bill, SB 1185, had passed the Senate 29-6 on March 18.
The House also approved budgets for public health services in the Department of Health & Welfare next year; unanimously backed a $1.3 million appropriation of leftover CARES Act funds to Idaho’s state parks; and voted 48-19 in favor of the budget for next year for the Catastrophic Health Care Program; that bill, HB 284, now moves to the Senate.