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White House promises to provide schools 10 million free coronavirus tests per month

President Biden boards Air Force One on Jan. 11. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The White House is promising to provide 10 million free coronavirus tests each month for schools, aiming to help keep classes in person at a time when testing across the country is uneven and, in some cases, virtually nonexistent.

President Biden has pushed schools to open and stay open for in-person learning, mindful of the academic and social-emotional damage wrought by remote learning, as well as the political risks among frustrated parents who crave normalcy and fully functioning schools. But experts say even with more tests, schools will struggle to stand up testing programs, given personnel needed at a time when staffing shortages are acute.

Last year, the administration said it was providing $10 billion for school-based testing. Nonetheless, before the omicron variant began racing across the country, relatively few districts even attempted testing for students and employees absent symptoms of covid-19.

Experts point to confusing guidance on when testing is needed, difficulty implementing programs and a sense among school leaders that it was not worth the effort, in addition to test shortages.

The new investment is expected to double the number of coronavirus tests that schools conducted as of November, the White House said.

“The omicron variant is driving unprecedented demand for testing, so we need to ensure school leaders have the support they need to meet that demand,” said Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator.

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 did not realize they were infected.

The tests may also be used to create test-to-stay programs, for which students exposed to someone with the coronavirus are allowed to stay in school rather than quarantine at home as long as they periodically test negative. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed this approach last month.

The White House said states will be able to request tests, and the first shipments were expected later this month.

Here’s what you need to know about these at-home tests, including where to get them, how they work and when to take them. (Video: The Washington Post)

Children exposed to covid can safely stay in class with in-school testing, CDC says

The White House said it also was making lab capacity available to process an additional 5 million PCR tests, which screen for the presence of genetic material from the virus and are more accurate than antigen tests, though they take longer to produce results.

The Biden administration faces enormous political pressure to keep schools open, as parents across the country express continued frustration about the persistence of closures and other restrictive measures. Analysts in both parties attribute Republican Glenn Youngkin’s surprise victory in November’s gubernatorial race in Virginia in significant part to voters’ frustration with school closures.

Democratic operatives worry that if voters see closures persisting, it could badly damage the party’s prospects in the November midterm elections, for which Democrats already face an uphill climb.

In response, Biden has said repeatedly in recent days that there is no reason for schools to close and that he favors keeping them open. The White House stresses that 96 percent of schools are now open, compared with 46 percent in January 2021, arguing that Democrats are responsible for opening schools, not closing them.

The first days of school in 2022 have been chaotic, with large numbers of teachers and students absent because of illness and some teachers and students campaigning for a return to virtual school. But the vast majority have remained open, and teachers unions in most of the country have gone along with in-person plans.

Tracking by the data firm Burbio found that on Monday and Tuesday, about 2,700 public schools had in-person learning disrupted, a small slice of some 100,000 K-12 schools in the country.

Nonetheless, many voters associate Democrats with school closures, given that since the pandemic erupted, the party has generally pushed public health measures to fight the virus, while many Republicans have been vocally opposed.

The CDC has long recommended screening tests as a powerful tool to keep schools safe, but functioning screening tests remain the exception, not the rule, in K-12 schools.

The biggest barriers have been convincing schools that testing is worth the effort and then finding personnel to administer the programs, said Andrew Sweet, managing director for covid response and recovery at the Rockefeller Foundation, which has advocated more coronavirus testing in schools.

“There’s a widespread view ‘This is just another … thing I have to do,’ ” he said. He added that federal officials also need to clearly communicate that rapid testing is effective, a message that has been muddled at times.

Current and former administration officials acknowledged that the White House had struggled with its national testing strategy, and one current and one former official, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly, said this latest move would have been far more effective if it had been in place before schools confronted this surge of cases.

Sasha Pudelski, director of advocacy for AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said the infusion of more tests will definitely help school districts. But schools will still struggle to get parents to consent to testing and to find overworked personnel to administer them, she said. “There are staff who say, `Since when is doing nose swabs part of my job?' ”

Until recently, many districts have not seen testing as a priority. In September, a Washington 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. Separately, a review at the time by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that only 14 out of 100 large and urban districts were screening students routinely.

With the rise of the omicron variant, more schools are attempting testing, but with decidedly mixed results. 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.

Other school systems have done better. In Washington, D.C., 39,000 students were tested in the days before school resumed after winter break, with about 2,200 testing positive. New York City has operated a screening test program inside schools since last school year.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, which resumed school after winter break Tuesday, reported that 91.3 percent of employees and 88 percent of students uploaded test results to the district’s system. Of them, 15 percent of employees and 17 percent of students tested positive for the virus.

Lawmakers at a Senate committee hearing Tuesday repeatedly pressed Biden administration officials on the nation’s testing strategy and guidance for schools. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chaired the hearing, told officials that she was “frustrated” with the continued uncertainty over how schools would navigate the omicron surge.

“I’m hearing from schools in my state that they’re worried they’ll have to shut down again if they can’t get the support for testing they need or they have staff shortages because of staff who are ill,” Murray said. “When we talk about these problems, we have to be focused on solutions. You can’t just say our schools must stay open.”

Biden administration officials replied that they were working to address school testing needs.

“Schools having enough testing supplies to stay open is a critical priority for us,” said Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, citing ongoing federal investments and promising further aid. “We are in the process … of looking at our contracts to see if we have any additional capacity, and we will commit to sending that capacity to the school programs.”

Experts said the tests could help schools blunt further spread of the virus, particularly given the emergence of the fast-spreading 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,” said Julia Raifman, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.

But some say the Biden administration missed opportunities to invest in more testing before the school year began.

“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, wrote in a text message. She added that testing has generally been an “afterthought” in the White House’s vaccine-heavy strategy.

“If teachers and students age five and up got vaccinated and wore masks, testing in schools would be icing on the cake,” Gounder wrote. “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.”