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.