By:  Andrew Restuccia
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Biden Administration to Offer Schools Millions of Free Covid-19 Tests Each Month

The Biden administration plans to distribute millions of free Covid-19 tests to schools around the country, part of the federal government’s effort to keep schools open amid a surge in coronavirus cases caused by the Omicron variant.

Later this month, the administration will begin shipping five million rapid Covid-19 tests to K-12 schools each month, White House officials said. States will have to apply to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to receive the tests. The administration has previously distributed $10 billion in resources to states for testing at schools. That funding was included in the coronavirus response legislation signed into law last year, according to the White House.

Public and private schools are eligible to receive the tests, an administration official said, though it is up to states to decide which schools to prioritize.

The rapid tests for schools are in addition to the 500 million rapid tests the administration plans to begin distributing to the public for free in the coming weeks, a White House official said. The administration has faced criticism for testing shortages around the country that led to long lines and empty shelves at the start of the Omicron surge.

The administration will also expand lab capacity to allow for five million additional PCR tests a month for schools around the country, according to the White House officials. PCR tests often take longer to process, but they are considered to be more accurate than rapid tests in some cases. The expanded testing capacity will be provided through a Health and Human Services program funded by the coronavirus response law. The White House said the additional PCR testing capacity will be available immediately through federally backed regional providers that offer testing and laboratory analysis.

Though most U.S. schools remain open, some have temporarily closed as the Omicron variant spreads around the country, infecting children and staff. President Biden has repeatedly said he wants schools to remain open, and he has advocated for additional testing as a solution for keeping children in the classroom.

The CDC last week updated its Covid-19 quarantine and isolation guidance for K-12 schools, bringing them in line with new, less stringent guidelines for the general public. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said schools should stay open with precautions in place and eligible children should get vaccinated.

Late last year, the CDC endorsed a strategy known as test-to-stay in which schools can use frequent testing to keep students in class after exposure to someone with Covid-19, an alternative to mandatory quarantining. The CDC will release additional materials later this week to help schools implement the test-to-stay measures, the White House said.

The fight over how to deal with Covid-19 in schools has prompted intense disagreements among parents, teachers and policy makers. Republicans have accused Mr. Biden of not doing enough to keep schools open, assertions that the president and his allies reject, pointing to Covid-19 relief funding for schools that Democrats passed over unanimous GOP opposition. The politics of schools and the pandemic are expected to be a major issue in the coming midterm elections.

“Today’s commitment is a major step forward in enabling school districts who have struggled to secure the tests teachers and staff rely on to see what’s unseen,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement about the Biden administration’s testing announcement.

Earlier this week, officials announced a resolution to a teacher walkout in Chicago over Covid-19 protocols. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the agreement was reached after officials set a metric for how many Covid-19 infections would be needed to trigger a shutdown of individual schools.

In addition to millions of monthly tests, the Biden administration said it would also ensure that federal surge teams—charged with setting up testing sites and assisting communities—will also weigh how they can assist K-12 schools, according to the White House.

White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said Wednesday the administration also was considering ways to make more high-quality masks available to people. Mr. Zients didn’t specify what kind of masks the administration was weighing or how they might be distributed, and a White House spokesman declined to elaborate.