Vermont’s “Test to Stay” Program is Late, Incomplete, and Not Nearly as Effective as It Could Be

When listening to Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly Covid briefings, it’s important to read between the lines. That’s because the bad news is concealed — sometimes cleverly, sometimes incompetently — in carefully-crafted statements that seem like good news but really aren’t.

Case in point: Education Secretary Dan French’s weekly foray into rhetorical misdirection concerning Vermont’s Test to Stay program, in which students who might be at risk are tested upon arrival at school. If they’re negative, they get to stay.

That is, if your school is actually offering the program. We’re three full months into the school year now, and Test to Stay remains very much a work in progress. If French were graded on his performance, he’d get an “Incomplete” and an admonishment to apply himself if he wants to pass.

Tuesday afternoon, French ambled to the lectern, removed his mask, and told us that 43 school districts — 73% of total districts — are enrolled in Test to Stay.

Note the word “enrolled.” They’ve signed up, and that’s all we know. French offered no numbers on how many schools are actively engaged in TTS. Those enrolled districts, he said, have either started testing or are awaiting supplies. Again, no breakdown was offered.

A reminder that the Scott administration didn’t launch TTS until after the beginning of the school year. It’s been playing catch-up ever since.

The administration had borrowed the concept from Massachusetts, which enacted its “Test and Stay” program in July, just after the arrival of the Delta variant. That gave the state and its schools more than a month to start the program before the first student walked in the door.

Even with the lack of specifics about how many districts are actually doing Test to Stay, think about this. Three months into the school year, is it really good news to say that 73% of districts are enrolled? Shouldn’t that be, oh, 90 or 95 or 100% by now?

But wait, there’s more! Sec. French also announced that the state has contracted with ATA Services, a temporary staffing agency, to provide part-time staffers for Test to Stay duties in the schools.

Again, he announced this at the end of November. Throughout the fall, he had offered the schools absolutely zero help. It was up to the schools, he said, to find the staff time to conduct Test to Stay. As he put it on October 6, “I expect schools will add staff or reassign existing staff.” And, “We’ll all have to dig deep to get through this.” He exempted his own agency staff from the “we all” because they were working very hard already.

I guess we know how well that went, because the administration has now had to change course. Without saying so, of course. Team Scott never admits to a mistake or a policy change.

This also means it has suddenly identified a funding source for a service it had refused to offer. Surprise, surprise, it’s from federal Covid relief, a source that was there all along, for God’s sake. French has no excuse for not offering temporary staff from the outset. The money was there.

And because the temp staffing is off to such a late start, it’s going to take a while for it to make any difference. French said that ATA had begun recruiting “the week of the 22nd,” also known as Thanksgiving week. A three-day week. So far, French said, ATA had assembled 60 potential candidates and sent 21 to districts for interview.

Wow. 21 whole part-timers. That should solve everything.

As the administration found out in the spring of 2020 when its unemployment insurance program imploded, you can’t just turn a spigot for upstaffing. It takes time and effort.

And it takes a lot of money. As I noted earlier in relation to hospitals, temp agencies make a pretty penny off these contracts. They collect fees of anywhere from 25% to 100% of the staffers’ pay — so the cost to the state can be as much as twice as high as hiring its own workers or providing districts the funds to do so.

I seriously doubt that in a time of widespread labor shortages, the likes of ATA are offering any discounts. If anything, I suspect they’ve raised their rates. It might be nice if an enterprising reporter dug into the true price tag for all this temp staffing. We’d likely be unpleasantly surprised.

Whatever the cost, the administration is happily — or should I say desperately — throwing bushels of federal dollars around in order to minimize the consequences of its own poor decision-making.

The administration is footing the bill, but hospitals and schools are the ones really paying the price.

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