As students return to school for the third full year of pandemic-era learning, President Joe Biden’s administration is emphasizing robust vaccination and testing efforts as well as improved air quality to protect school communities from the COVID-19 virus.
The White House released a back-to-school fact sheet Aug. 16 with information on COVID-19 safety best practices and resources for districts as they begin another school year. The information came days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new COVID-19 guidance for schools, rolling back “test-to-stay” and quarantine requirements that guided school responses to the pandemic for the past two-plus years.
Under the new CDC guidance, schools are encouraged to let community considerations drive safety strategies, recommending masks only in areas with “high community levels” of virus spread. As of Aug. 11, 40 percent of counties, districts, or territories had a high level of the spread of COVID-19, according to the CDC.
In its fact sheet, the White House followed the CDC’s lead, de-emphasizing the importance of masking and quarantining and instead focusing on vaccinations, testing, and air quality as major prevention strategies.
“I’m confident that with the support of the American Rescue Plan and other federal resources, we can keep all our children, all across the country, safe, healthy, and learning on the road to success,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.
Vaccines and boosters are a ‘first line of defense’
School districts should have a robust plan to ensure all teachers and students who want to be vaccinated can do so, the White House said.
Vaccines are available for everyone 6 months and older, and boosters are open to every person 5 years and older. The White House suggests districts use vaccines as the “first line of defense” against the virus by ensuring students, employees, and families know their options. (The CDC and White House guidance do not recommend requiring that students be vaccinated against the virus, but rather instruct districts to encourage students to get vaccinated.)
The Biden administration plans to work with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association to encourage members to get a COVID-19 booster this fall. The CDC has various resources, including a “Booster Tool,” a COVID-19 vaccines page, and Vaccines.gov, that all have information on who is eligible for boosters and how to access them. The AFT and NEA will also emphasize the importance of educators who are 50 or older getting their second booster if they have not done so.
The White House used the fact sheet as an opportunity to call on school districts to host vaccine clinics. Schools can use funding from the American Rescue Plan and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover the costs of vaccine clinics, and the CDC published its own guide for schools planning vaccination clinics.
COVID-19 testing remains a key prevention strategy
In its new recommendations, the CDC scaled back testing guidance, removing the popular “test-to-stay” strategy, which allowed students to remain in class after being exposed to the virus if they undergo periodic testing. Instead, the health agency recommended diagnostic testing for anyone who is showing symptoms of the virus. It also recommended screening testing be used for high-risk activities, such as contact sports and early childhood education programs, for schools in areas with high community spread of the virus.
In its fact sheet, the White House emphasized testing as a strategy to protect students from the virus. The Biden administration plans to distribute 5 million over-the-counter rapid tests and 5 million swab PCR tests as well as additional point-of-care rapid tests to schools over the next year.
Districts can order the tests through January 2023, according to the fact sheet. Schools can also use funding from the CDC Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity program, which provided $10 billion to K-12 schools to pay for tests, the fact sheet said.
Funding available to improve air quality
Schools are still able to use American Rescue Plan dollars to pay for air quality improvements in their buildings. According to the fact sheet, the funds can be used to cover the costs of inspections, repairs, upgrades, and replacements in HVAC systems. The money can also go toward air conditioners, fans, portable air cleaners, and germicidal UV light systems, as well as repairing windows and doors.
The administration plans to collaborate with HVAC professional associations to provide expert guidance and technical support to improve indoor air quality at schools.
The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Energy also plan to highlight school districts that are “excelling in efforts to improve indoor air quality” through the energy department’s “Efficient and Healthy Schools Campaign” over the coming months. The departments plan to release criteria for recognition in the coming weeks, according to the fact sheet.
The Environmental Protection Agency also has a set of resources that schools can use to improve air quality, including its “Clean Air in Buildings Challenge” and a guide for indoor air quality in schools. The CDC provides air ventilation guidance through its interactive school ventilation tool.