After considerable delay and congressional criticism, the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday announced it will require public and private school officials to check their buildings for loose asbestos fibers.

"This rule demonstrates EPA's commitment to take action in order to achieve positive health and environmental benefits," said Dr. John A. Todhunter, assistant EPA administrator for pesticides and toxic substances.

The program will require school officials to inspect schools, maintain records of findings, and notify employes and parents if loose asbestos is found. However, it stops short of requiring schools to correct hazardous asbestos conditions; EPA expects schools to do that on their own.

Asbestos, a known carcinogen, has been widely used for fireproofing and thermal and acoustical insulation in schools and other buildings. The substance is a health hazard when it becomes loose and flakes into the air.

In 1979, EPA announced that it would require officials to inspect schools and remove dangerous asbestos, after it found that under its voluntary program, about 40 percent of schools were not inspected and loose asbestos in more was not removed.

However, when the Reagan administration took office, the inspection plan was delayed and the correction plan dropped, because of the expected cost. At Hill hearings in March, congressmen noted the plan was a year behind schedule and accused Todhunter of abandoning the program, which he denied.