White House to Give Schools 10 Million Free COVID Tests Every Month

In an effort to keep kids in classrooms, the White House announced Wednesday that 10 million free coronavirus tests will be provided to schools around the country every month while the wildly contagious Omicron variant continues to surge.

President Joe Biden has been pushing for months to have schools stay open because the academic, social and emotional toll of remote learning has put kids at risk for mental health issues.

The new investment is expected to double the number of coronavirus tests that schools used as of November, the White House said in a statement on the plan.

“The Biden-Harris administration is doubling down on our commitment to keeping all schools safely open for full-time in-person learning by taking new action to increase access to COVID-19 testing in schools,” the statement read. “Through these new initiatives, the administration will increase the number of COVID-19 tests available to schools by 10 million per month.”

The administration said it would distribute 5 million free rapid antigen tests to K-12 schools each month, to be used in two types of testing. The first is screening tests, in which a portion of students are tested on a regular basis in hopes of finding those who do not know they are infected. The second is test-to-stay programs that allow students exposed to COVID to stay in school rather than quarantine at home as long as they periodically test negative.

In addition to those 5 million tests, the White House will provide 5 million free PCR tests to schools to perform individual and pooled testing. States will be able to request tests, and the first shipments are expected later this month.

At this point, 96 percent of schools are now open, compared with 46 percent in January 2021, the White House added, and the Biden administration wants to keep it that way.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long recommended screening tests as a powerful tool to keep schools safe, but successful screening programs in school systems are still the exception, the Washington Post reported.

School districts have struggled to set up COVID testing programs, with many not seeing it as a priority. In September, a Post survey found just four of the nation’s 20 largest school districts were screening asymptomatic students, who can infect others even though they have no symptoms.

Now, more schools are trying testing as Omicron rages, but not all have been successful. Teachers in Broward County, Fla., were given expired test kits. In Chicago, thousands of at-home student tests conducted as the winter break concluded were destroyed, the Post reported.

But in Washington, D.C., 39,000 students were tested in the days before school resumed after winter break, with about 2,200 testing positive. And New York City has run a screening test program inside schools since last school year. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified School District, which resumed school after winter break on Tuesday, reported that 91.3 percent of employees and 88 percent of students had uploaded test results to the district’s system. Of them, 15 percent of employees and 17 percent of students tested positive for the virus, the Post reported.

Experts said screening tests could help slow further spread of the Omicron variant.

“Providing more rapid tests in schools is important to reduce spread in schools and back home, as well as to teachers, staff and bus drivers,” Julia Raifman, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, told the Post.

But others said the Biden administration missed its best chance to contain COVID in classrooms.

“Ten million free tests is a start, but a drop in the bucket,” Celine Gounder, an infectious disease doctor at New York University who advised Biden’s transition team on the coronavirus, told the Post. She added that testing has mostly been an “afterthought” in the White House’s vaccine-heavy strategy.

“If teachers and students age 5 and up got vaccinated and wore masks, testing in schools would be icing on the cake,” Gounder said. “But so long as a third of Americans aren’t fully vaccinated and don’t consistently and correctly wear masks, we will have to layer additional measures to protect the public, especially the most vulnerable. Testing and isolation are one of those additional layers.”

More information

Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more on COVID testing in schools.

SOURCE: White House, statement, Jan. 11, 2022; Washington Post