The first federal initiative to make free COVID-19 tests available to all public schools was recently announced by the U.S. Department of Education.
The federal agency is partnering with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to encourage school districts and charter schools to stock up nurses’ offices with the tests and hand out free tests to students, staff, parents, and the community to take home and use when needed.
Health and Human Services is prepared to ship out millions of tests in the coming months. To get the tests, school districts and charter schools will have to order them—the Education Department has notified local education agencies about how to do that through a Dear Colleague letter.
“These self-tests are easy to use and can play an important role in preventing the spread of COVID-19,” said Roberto Rodriguez, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, in a statement. “We encourage schools to make use of these free resources to safeguard students, parents, and staff throughout the 2023-24 school year.”
This initiative is part of a broader push by the Biden-Harris Administration to increase COVID-19 testing across the country, especially as the nation heads into the winter months when COVID-19 cases have traditionally increased. To date, the federal government has distributed 1.6 billion COVID-19 tests to households, community health centers, food banks, long-term care facilities, and schools since at-home tests were developed.
But with the COVID-19 public health emergency officially expiring last May, free COVID-19 tests have been harder to come by for families and schools, said Kate King, the president of the National Association of School Nurses. That is the case even though the federal government periodically offers to send free tests to households that request them.
For many families, COVID-19 tests, which typically cost more than $20 for a packet of two tests, are too expensive to use every time their children have the sniffles. And they may not be aware of programs to receive free tests, or they don’t understand how to navigate the system to get the tests, said King.
“We all need to remember that many of our children are not going to be able to access these tests,” she said. “I think this will make testing again a lot more accessible—and I’m excited!”
King, who is also a middle school nurse in Columbus, Ohio, said she no longer has COVID-19 tests in her office and often wishes she had some to send home with students.
She believes more families will use the tests if they can easily access them, which will lead to them taking more precautions and slowing the spread of COVID-19 in the winter months.
“I do think when people test positive, they will self-isolate however they need to, or mask,” she said. “People understand when they’re positive that they need to do something.”