Although President Joe Biden’s administration has identified regular COVID-19 testing as a strategy to help safely reopen schools, administrators still struggle to locate adequate supplies and staffing to carry it out, U.S. senators told two cabinet officials Thursday.
While members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee differed on approaches to vaccination mandates and student masking policies, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concern about regular testing challenges to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
“It’s the one thing that everybody on this committee agrees on,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “Everybody here thinks there ought to be a lot of tests, and they ought to be cheap.”
While some European countries sell rapid COVID-19 tests for as little as a dollar at grocery stores, Americans pay much more for home testing, he said.
And, despite federal financial assistance including $10 billion designated for school testing strategies, many administrators struggle to find enough rapid testing kits to test students as frequently as they’ve deemed necessary to limit the risk of transmission in their buildings, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
“Having access to federal funding doesn’t necessarily mean that you can find those tests,” she said. “You need to know that right now there is a real crush to be able to get the testing that can get the results back in a timely enough manner to make a difference.”
Becerra assured senators the administration was working to address supply concerns, and Cardona said the Education Department had worked to highlight “best practices” including successful school testing strategies.
“We’ve seen the surge [of interest in testing] in the last couple of months, and Delta has really been the driver of this,” Becerra said of the more-contagious COVID-19 variant.
School COVID-19 testing is a key Biden strategy
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.
Schools use testing for a variety of purposes, including regularly screening athletes, monitoring those who may have been exposed to infected classmates, and swabbing samples of students on a rotating basis to stay ahead of possible spread.
In a Sept. 9 address, Biden included school testing as a key strategy in a six-part plan to address a surge of the Delta variant. That plan provided few details for how officials would help schools ramp up their testing efforts, saying only that federal agencies “will continue to provide assistance to schools to accelerate the establishment of screening testing programs in all schools.”
Biden also announced a deal with major retailers to sell rapid at-home COVID-19 tests at cost for a three-month window to help families monitor their risk. And he said he would use the Defense Production Act to increase production of testing kits.
“I will mobilize American industry to procure nearly 300 million more rapid COVID-19 tests for distribution all around the country, including to schools that need them,” he said at a Washington, D.C., middle school Sept. 10.
Delta variant drives demand for tests
But senators said families and educators on the frontlines are still struggling to find supplies. Murkowski, whose state currently has the nation’s highest virus transmission rates, said she feared supplies would become a bigger issue after the Labor Department implements a new federal rule that requires employers with more than 100 workers to regularly test unvaccinated employees.
Federal officials believe there is adequate testing supply, Becerra said, but surging demand for certain kinds of tests in hot-spot areas has caused distribution problems that have made it challenging to get kits to the right place at the right time.
Health officials are working with industry groups to “anticipate demand” and with officials on the ground to direct supplies, he said.
“It’s one of those things where we have to work in close partnership with our state and local teams to make sure that we are coordinating well,” he said.
Schools have also reported difficulty recruiting staff members like bus drivers, food workers, and school nurses. That can make it more challenging to find employees to help conduct regular tests, senators said.
Cardona and Becerra said their agencies would provide technical assistance to schools to inform their strategies. Cardona listed testing, masking, and encouraging vaccinations as crucial to ensuring that students can safely learn in-person.
“Our schools must be safe for learning, and we have to be sure we are communicating what we are doing to keep students safe,” the education secretary said. “It’s our responsibility to follow the science.”
Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have stressed that testing alone isn’t enough to keep schools safe. Students need layers of precautions, including masks and proper ventilation, to drive down the risk of transmission, they’ve said.
Support for local student vaccine mandates
Senators also pressed the cabinet members on student vaccine requirements.
As federal officials near likely approval of a COVID-19 vaccine for children as young as 5, some policymakers have discussed the possibility of mandating the inoculation for school attendance.
A handful of large districts, including Los Angeles Unified, have already set such requirements for students 12 and over, who currently qualify to be vaccinated.
Cardona and Becerra both said they support local decisions to require vaccines, but that those decisions are outside of the authority of the federal government.