Students return to Metro Nashville Public Schools

Metro Nashville Public Schools students in fifth and ninth grades returned to classrooms Tuesday, Feb. 23.

In-school COVID-19 testing will continue through the end of this month to serve students attending Metro Nashville Public Schools’ new summer learning program, Promising Scholars. After that, COVID-19 testing in schools will end.

That’s because MNPS’ contract with Meharry Medical College Ventures Inc. will end at the end of this month. MNPS spokesperson Sean Braisted says there are no plans to extend the contract.

So far, MNPS has paid MMCV Inc. more than $10 million to serve fewer than 6,700 students and staff who have opted in to testing, according to invoices provided to Main Street Nashville.

How it came to be

On Dec. 21, MNPS publicly announced a plan to have COVID-19 testing available to students and staff in Metro schools. The same day, the entity MNPS would contract with to provide the testing, Meharry Medical College Ventures Inc., filed articles of incorporation with the state.

Internal conversations at MNPS about a partnership with Meharry Medical College began several weeks before.

After the 2020-21 school year began virtually, some elementary students returned for in-person instruction in mid-October. About four weeks later, MNPS Chief of Staff Hank Clay initiated contact with Meharry to open discussion about the testing partnership, according to emails provided to Main Street Nashville.

On Dec. 3, Meharry President Dr. James Hildreth, MNPS Director of Schools Adrienne Battle and several other high-level staff from Meharry and MNPS held a Zoom meeting to talk about the partnership.

“Thank you for the highly productive meeting,” Clay wrote in an email to participants after the call.

Less than three weeks later, on Dec. 21, MNPS announced the testing plan and MMCV Inc. was formed. Meharry did not announce the formation of the subsidiary for five more months. In January, the Metro Board of Education unanimously approved the $18 million contract with MMCV Inc. without discussion.

While Mayor John Cooper approved Metro agencies to conduct emergency procurement in March 2020, MNPS’ contract with MMCV Inc. is the only contract MNPS approved by emergency procurement.

It took a few weeks to get the testing program up and running. By the end of February, more than 500 MNPS teachers had received shots of the COVID-19 vaccine. By March 3, all grades were back for in-person learning after significant pressure from state officials.

The first COVID-19 tests were administered in schools March 8 — almost a year to the day after schools closed because of the virus.

What testing in schools cost

MMCV Inc. has invoiced more than $10 million under the contract for expenses through April 6. That breaks down to nearly $5.16 million in startup costs and a monthly bill of about $1.8 million.

Invoices provided to Main Street Nashville show that just a fraction of that total — $1.16 million — account for line-item costs directly associated with COVID-19 testing, such as performing BinaxNOW rapid tests, PCR testing and fees, and test distribution to school locations. BinaxNOW tests are provided to MNPS at no cost.

MMCV Inc. invoiced a further $1.9 million for 130 thermal camera packs, inventory and delivery to schools, and other “mobile technology” services.

MMCV Inc. also created a website for parents to register students to be tested at school, called BackSafely.org, along with administration services, at an invoiced cost of $1.8 million.

In addition to testing-specific costs, MMCV Inc. developed a COVID-19 communications strategy and protocols, school-level recommendations for MNPS’ 127 schools, and it held regular meetings to train staff in changing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, according to invoices.

Altogether, the services are significantly more costly than other services Meharry Medical College has provided to Metro. Meharry contracted with Metro’s Office of Emergency Management last May to staff and oversee COVID-19 assessment centers for Metro. The 25-month contract cost Metro $5.75 million.

While services include more than just COVID-19 testing, compared with peer cities, the services come at a much higher cost. Shelby County Schools in Memphis has a $6 million arrangement for two years of testing services. Atlanta Public Schools launched its $2 million COVID-19 testing program in January.

Funding for the contract is allocated from $123 million in Elementary and Secondary School Relief allocated to MNPS by Congress in December.

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