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Despite public pressure, the Metro Board of Education is standing by its approval in January of an $18 million no-bid contract with a subsidiary of Meharry Medical College to provide COVID-19 testing and other support in schools — the district’s largest single expenditure of the second round of federal pandemic relief.

The contract authorizes Metro Nashville Public Schools to pay Meharry Medical College Ventures, a for-profit entity owned by Meharry Medical College, up to $18 million for services during an 18-week period ending June 30.

In return, Meharry will develop, staff and implement “a school reentry plan.” Staff hired by Meharry will coordinate contact tracing, manage and analyze data, and coordinate a COVID-19 education campaign for Metro Schools employees, students and families.

Meharry staff will also screen for COVID-19 symptoms and administer COVID-19 tests at each school. According to the contract, Meharry will use rapid antigen tests provided to Metro Schools by the Tennessee Department of Health.

Patrick Johnson, senior vice president of institutional advancement at Meharry, says the plan requires about 400 staff to be hired to serve the school district’s population of more than 60,000 people.

“We’re not going to give a halfhearted attempt,” Johnson told Board of Education members during a recent meeting. “It is a very robust system. Tax dollars are being used wisely.”

It’s not yet known how many students will opt in to the testing, a spokesperson confirmed to Main Street Nashville.

Metro Schools does not require students to be tested as a condition of accessing in-person learning, though according to the contract, students who want to participate in extracurricular activities may be required to be tested. Metro Schools is in the process of collecting consent forms to determine how many students will be served by the Meharry contract.

According to Johnson, the funding breaks down to between $500 and $1,000 per school, per day for all the services.

“We’ve tried to make this as cost effective as possible, to give the best solution that we could,” Johnson said.

Metro Schools did not consider any other candidates to provide the services. The contract did not go through a traditional competitive bid process, instead getting approval through emergency procurement.

Board of Education Chair Christiane Buggs said the contract was inked quickly to get students back into classrooms. Nashville was the second-to-last school district to offer an in-person learning option this year.

“We allow for emergency stipulations like these contracts coming up very quickly because we knew we were hearing from the community that they wanted to be back in person,” Buggs said. “And so here we are, trying to work to get you all back in person.”

Metro Schools’ contract with Meharry covers far more than COVID-19 testing administration. But compared with other cities, the cost is far higher. In total, Metro Schools is authorized to spend just under $1 million per week to serve nearly 81,000 students, plus staff.

Earlier this month, Tennessee’s largest school district, Shelby County Schools, laid out its plan to make COVID-19 pool testing available for its 113,200 students and their teachers. Officials said testing would cost $6 million over two years.

Baltimore’s school board has approved $15.2 million for COVID-19 testing: $5.7 million contract with Ginkgo Bioworks Inc. for pool tests and a $9.5 million contract with ShieldT3 to process the saliva tests, the Baltimore Sun reported. The district has 79,200 students enrolled.

In January, Atlanta Public Schools launched a $2 million COVID-19 screening program to serve its population of 61,000 students and staff in partnership with Atlanta-based provider Viral Solutions.

New York City’s school system contracted with Fulgent Genetics in December to provide COVID-19 testing for its 1.1 million students. The testing costs $1.6 million a week, Chalkbeat reports.

Metro Schools Chief of Staff Hank Clay says he does not believe that the full $18 million will be used before the contract’s deadline. If it is and more money is needed, a request will be made to the board.

“This is an emergency contract in an emergency situation of COVID-19,” Clay said.

Metro Schools received $123 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding from the second round of the federal stimulus passed by Congress in December.

At $18 million, the Meharry contract is the largest expenditure of ESSER Round 2 funds, after a combined $24.4 million in direct payments to schools.

From the $51 million stimulus funding bucket for “COVID operations,” Metro Schools will also use $11.2 million to improve facility ventilation systems, $4.7 million to hire additional school nurses, $1.5 million for Wi-Fi data plans and $7 million for nutrition services.

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