Updated: This article has been updated to include details about how a vaccine-or-test rule for employers will apply to public schools in some states.
President Joe Biden on Thursday urged more schools to routinely test students for COVID-19 and more governors to step up teacher vaccination efforts as part of a larger plan to address concerns about the pandemic’s more contagious Delta variant.
The president also announced teacher and staff vaccination mandates for Head Start and Early Head Start programs, Department of Defense schools and youth programs, and schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, affecting a combined 300,000 employees. And his administration launched a new grant program to help offset financial penalties for schools that defy state bans on mitigation strategies, like universal mask requirements.
His plan also calls for a new rule requiring private businesses with more than 100 employees to require staff to get vaccinated or tested for the virus weekly. That requirement will apply to private schools nationwide and to public schools in 26 states and two U.S. territories with state-level work-safety plans overseen by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor confirmed.
For public schools in the remaining states, which are operated by states and districts, the president stopped short of setting new federal requirements, instead encouraging them to adopt the strategies federal health officials have identified as key to minimizing disruption and preserving in-person learning. His plan does does not include any incentives for states to require teacher vaccines or expand testing or set any penalties for those that do not.
“Vaccination requirements in schools are nothing new. They work. They are overwhelmingly supported by school officials and their unions,” Biden said in a speech from the White House in which he outlined six steps his administration plans to tackle the virus, including a vaccine mandate for all federal workers.
His remarks come as schools around the country, and particularly in states with lower vaccination rates, see mass disruptions as students quarantine after possible COVID-19 exposure. In some areas, schools have returned to remote learning for short periods because so many students needed to isolate from their peers.
Responses to the virus have been met with strong political headwinds. Decisions about school governance and public health are largely made at the state and local levels, and policymakers have taken widely varying approaches around the country. In some states, the Biden administration has launched civil rights investigations into policies that ban districts from setting universal mask requirements.
“Talk about bullying in schools,” Biden said of GOP governors in states like Florida and Texas. “If these governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, I will use my power as president to get them out of the way.”
The new grant program, Project SAFE (Supporting America’s Families and Educators), will use money from the School Safety National Activities program in the Every Student Succeeds Act to restore funding withheld by state leaders who oppose efforts like mask requirements, the U.S. Department of Education announced.
Testing students to keep schools open
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools in areas deemed at “high” or “substantial” risk of transmission, which is most of the country, conduct COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated students and staff at least weekly to isolate possible cases and to monitor the success of their mitigation strategies.
The American Rescue Plan provided $10 billion to support school testing efforts, and the nearly $123 billion in relief aid for K-12 schools can also be used to support virustesting plans. But many schools have favored screenings to test for symptoms like fevers and fatigue, which epidemiologists have said are far less likely to catch early cases.
Biden’s plan provides few details about how his administration will push for expanded school testing efforts, saying only that the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services “will continue to provide assistance to schools to accelerate the establishment of screening testing programs in all schools.”
Nearly 70 percent of the 74 big city school systems in a tracker maintained by Education Week and the Council of the Great City Schools require some form of virus testing for students and staff. But those strategies vary, with some testing only targeted populations, some making tests optional, and some offering them at different durations.
In New York City, for example, schools have tested samples of students on a biweekly basis. Pennsylvania has offered weekly “pooled testing” to schools, using COVID relief aid to test whole classrooms of students with one kit, pulling students out for subsequent individual swabs if their classroom tests positive. Los Angeles Unified has an ambitious $350 million weekly testing effort that involves two plane trips a day to fly samples to a northern California lab.
But many schools have not widely adopted testing strategies, citing concerns about staffing shortages, taking students away from classroom time, and the availability of supplies.
The White House plan may help address the supply issue by using the Defense Production Act to help produce nearly $2 billion in rapid point-of-care and over-the-counter COVID tests for use in homes, schools, and community settings. Biden’s plan also calls for distribution of free, at-home tests at food banks and community health centers, which provide care to low-income and uninsured families.
Some schools have also struggled to secure parental consent for regular student testing, as Education Week reported in March. Testing efforts are weakened when fewer students participate, disease experts have said, and some parents are concerned about privacy, comfort, or the inconvenience of quarantines if their child has an asymptomatic case.
Pressure to vaccinate more teachers and school staff
The Biden administration has long linked its teacher vaccination efforts with its push to open schools for in-person learning. It prioritized teachers, child-care workers, and school staff for early doses of COVID-19 vaccines before they were available to the general population in most states, and Biden has encouraged schools to sponsor on-site clinics for employees, eligible students, and community members.
As of Sept. 7, two states and Puerto Rico have ordered all teachers to get vaccinated, according to an Education Week tracker. Another seven states and the District of Columbia have said teachers must get vaccinated or undergo regular testing. Nine states have taken the opposite approach by prohibiting teacher vaccine requirements, the tracker shows.
“We need to do more,” Biden said of vaccination requirements. “This is not about freedom or personal choice. It’s about protecting yourself and those around you.”
While children under age 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated for COVID-19, federal officials say increasing vaccination rates of adults in their communities can serve to protect unvaccinated kids and reduce the risk of transmission.
While children are less likely to grow severely ill from COVID-19, rates of illness have risen as the Delta variant makes up a majority of U.S. cases. States in the bottom 25 percent for vaccination rates have seen the number of children and teenagers admitted to the hospital rise four times faster than states with the highest quarter of vaccination rates, according to CDC research released last week.
For children under 12, “every parent, every teenage sibling, every caregiver around them should be vaccinated,” Biden said.
“They get vaccinated for a lot of things,” he said, speaking directly to parents of teens, who have low vaccination rates. “That’s it. Get them vaccinated.”
Biden did not touch on student vaccine mandates in his speech. The White House plan commits to keep parents and communities updated on the approval process for vaccines for children under 12, but it sets no timelines or specific goals.
At an earlier White House briefing, a reporter asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki if the administration would push for schools to require COVID-19 vaccines for children alongside the schedule of inoculations they already require, like the measles shot.
“It’s always going to be up to local school districts and states and localities to make those decisions,” Psaki said. “But we certainly think that mandates, in places where they have put mandates in place, are a step forward.”