Blog

Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.

Federal

Citing Educator and Parent Anxieties, Senators Press Biden Officials on Omicron Response

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 11, 2022 5 min read
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, left, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president, testify before a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to COVID-19 and new emerging variants, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Highlighting worries from school officials as well as parents trying to navigate the surge in COVID-19 cases, U.S. senators pushed Biden administration officials during a Tuesday hearing to detail their strategies for helping classrooms stay open and ensuring access to things like masks and tests for education leaders.

In a Senate education committee discussion about the omicron variant and how the White House was planning to respond to future variants of the coronavirus, top federal health officials cited the administration’s support for a “test-to-stay” strategy that can help students stay in school buildings if they are regularly tested and test negative. They also pointed to previous federal aid to pay for coronavirus tests specifically for K-12 schools, as well as COVID-19 vaccines available to school-age children.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky also stressed the importance of schools to senators, saying at one point during the Tuesday hearing that, “Schools should be the first places to open and the last places to close.”

Yet it’s unclear to what extent senators were satisfied with the measures designed to support schools that were outlined by Biden officials, who revealed little if anything new about the administration’s strategy for K-12 during the pandemic.

And beyond Washington, the rapid spread of the omicron variant has put intense pressure on day-to-day school operations. From fear and fatigue among teachers during recent weeks, to staff shortages, rising infections, student absences, and parent frustrations, many district leaders who want to maintain in-person learning are finding it excruciatingly difficult if not impossible.

Less than 24 hours after the hearing, the Biden administration announced that it would provide 10 million COVID-19 tests free of charge to K-12 schools every month. The initiative, which the White House announced Wednesday, will provide 5 million rapid tests and 5 million PCR tests to schools on a monthly basis. The administration also plans to make it easier for school staff and students to access testing centers, and will provide resources on test-to-stay strategies to help keep students in school buildings.

The White House said the rapid tests will arrive at schools later this month, after states submit requests for them, while schools will have immediate access to the additional lab-based PCR tests.

“These additional tests will help schools safely remain open and implement screening testing and test to stay programs,” the administration said in a statement. “With the additional ten million tests per month, we will make available to schools more than double the volume of testing that took place in schools across the nation in November 2021.”

While data indicates that the majority of school districts are keeping their buildings open for in-person activities, the stresses that go into doing so have reached a new levels for many in school communities. High-profile shutdowns like those in Chicago schools have fueled political divisions about what schools should and shouldn’t be doing.

Educators are also worried about the omicron variant’s impact on student learning, especially at this crucial time of year when new semesters are starting, even if in-person learning is taking place.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee’s chairwoman, said that nobody wants school buildings to shut down and that parents are frustrated with the current circumstances. But she’s also heard from many education leaders in her home state who worry that they’ll have to cut off in-person learning “if they can’t get the support for testing they need or they have staff shortages because of staff who are ill.”

“I am hearing from so many schools that want to stay open,” Murray said later during a question-and-answer period with witnesses. “They don’t have access to the safety measures like masks and testing supplies. What do I tell them about where to go to get that?”

In response, Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, cited the $10 billion the Biden administration earmarked to make more COVID-19 tests available for K-12 schools; that effort was announced in early 2021, several months before the omicron surge began near the end of last year, however.

She also pointed to a $650 million effort unveiled in November designed to increase the capacity to manufacture rapid virus tests, an effort that she said would ultimately benefit schools.

Murray said that she is working with Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the committee’s ranking member, on legislation designed to ramp up the nation’s capacity to manufacture more COVID-19 tests and combat “misinformation” about the pandemic. However, Murray’s office indicated that this legislation would not deal directly with schools. (Murray did stress at the hearing that people who demand that schools keep their doors open should support providing the resources needed to do so.)

Burr, meanwhile, blasted the Biden administration for bungling the chance to make coronavirus tests widely available and easily accessible, leading to uncertainty and confusion about issues like when students and staff can safely return to schools.

“You created skepticism and mass confusion,” Burr told officials.

On Monday, in response to questions about the labor dispute in Chicago schools that led school buildings to shut down this month, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “We want to see schools open. ... The mental health impact on kids of not having schools open is very harsh and hard.” She indicated that American Rescue Plan funding for K-12 schools that President Joe Biden signed into law last year, as well as other resources from the federal government, were designed in part to keep schools open.

Several times during the hearing, lawmakers highlighted parents’ anxieties about schools’ ability to stay open and the consequences if they did not provide in-person learning. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said that the guidance parents receive from their local schools has repeatedly changed, and said that schools should not close before other entities.

“The trauma on these kids during the pandemic has been significant,” Murphy told the witnesses, adding that he had a dim view about the effectiveness of online learning for economically disadvantaged children and students of color.

In response, Walensky highlighted the “test-to-stay” strategy, although concerns are emerging in schools that this approach to prioritize keeping kids in schools if they test negative for COVID-19 becomes less effective if adults and children in schools are testing positive en masse.

She also noted that the CDC recently updated its quarantine guidance for schools to match changes to general recommendations that, among other things, shortened the isolation period for people who test positive.

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal AFT's Randi Weingarten on Kamala Harris: 'She Has a Record of Fighting for Us'
The union head's call to support Kamala Harris is one sign of Democratic support coalescing around the vice president.
5 min read
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks at the organization's annual conference in Houston on July 22, 2024.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks at the organization's biennial conference in Houston on July 22, 2024. She called on union members to support Vice President Kamala Harris the day after President Joe Biden ended his reelection campaign.
via AFT Livestream
Federal Biden Drops Out of Race and Endorses Kamala Harris to Lead the Democratic Ticket
The president's endorsement of Harris makes the vice president the most likely nominee for the Democrats.
3 min read
President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, on the final day of the NATO summit in Washington.
President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, on the final day of the NATO summit in Washington. He announced Sunday that he was dropping out of the 2024 presidential race and endorsing Vice President Kamala Harris as his replacement for the Democratic nomination.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Federal What We Know About Kamala Harris’ Education Record
Harris is the frontrunner for the top of the ticket. A look at her record on K-12, along with those of other Democratic contenders.
8 min read
Vice President Kamala Harris embraces President Joe Biden after a speech on healthcare in Raleigh, N.C., March. 26, 2024. President Joe Biden dropped out of the 2024 race for the White House on Sunday, July 21, ending his bid for reelection following a disastrous debate with Donald Trump that raised doubts about his fitness for office just four months before the election.
Vice President Kamala Harris embraces President Joe Biden after a speech on health care in Raleigh, N.C., on March 26, 2024. Biden on Sunday announced he wouldn't run for reelection and endorsed Harris as his replacement.
Matt Kelley/AP
Federal Opinion The Great Project 2025 Freakout
There's nothing especially scary in the Heritage Foundation's education agenda—nor is it a reliable gauge of another Trump administration.
6 min read
Man lurking behind the American flag, suspicion concept.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty