Biden wants all schools open by May

By Francesca Chambers
McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS

WASHINGTON - Health and education experts say a massive ramp up in coronavirus testing is necessary for most public schools to safely reopen by May - the target set by President Joe Biden.

Children under the age of 16 are not yet cleared by health officials to receive any of the COVID-19 vaccines, and the inoculation of adults is taking longer than expected. Experts say that prioritizing teachers for vaccination is helpful, but it may not be enough, and regular coronavirus testing is imperative for schools to reopen now.

An estimated 300 million tests a month are needed for K-12 schools to reopen, according to the Rockefeller Foundation, which has been studying the effectiveness of COVID-19 testing in schools with federal support.

Brett Giroir, who oversaw coronavirus testing as assistant secretary for health in the Trump administration and worked with Rockefeller on the pilot program for schools, said in an interview that there were roughly 170 million tests available nationwide in January.

The new Biden administration could not say this week how many tests are necessary for schools to reopen, but it acknowledged that adequate testing is one of the issues that must be resolved.

“We do not have nearly enough testing capacity in this country,” Jeff Zients, a counselor to the president and coordinator of the COVID-19 response, said Wednesday as he talked about Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief proposal.

Biden’s administration must overcome a number of obstacles that health, education and even his own experts say are holding schools back, including a scarcity of testing materials, limited funds to purchase tests and the lack of school nurses and other personnel to administer tests once schools have them.

Since students and teachers cannot all be vaccinated right now, schools would need to require protective measures such as physical distancing and regular coronavirus testing to reopen safely, they said.

“Widespread regular testing is the heart of any successful school reopening plan, particularly in the absence of widely available vaccines,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told McClatchy. “If the Biden administration wants to reopen school buildings much more robustly in the first 100 days of its administration, widespread regular testing is the heart of what’s needed.”

Biden has said he would like to see the majority of K-8 schools open by the end of his first 100 days in office, which comes near the end of the regular school year at the beginning of May.

He signed a series of executive orders Thursday aimed at rapidly expanding coronavirus testing nationwide and directed his administration to develop clear guidelines for COVID-19 screening in schools.

The Rockefeller Foundation estimated in a December report that it would cost schools $42.5 billion to conduct the necessary number of tests to reopen schools from February until the current school year ends in June.

Rockefeller recommends that kindergarten, elementary and secondary school students be tested for coronavirus once a week. Researchers recommended a two test a week strategy be implemented for educators and staff.

The foundation has managed a testing program since last fall for the Department of Health and Human Services at schools in six areas, including Louisville, Ky., Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., where it encompasses the entire public charter school system. The federal government has provided roughly 180,000 coronavirus Abbott BinaxNOW tests to participating schools.

Schools in the pilot program that combined testing with other preventative measures have not experienced widespread coronavirus contagion, said Andrew Sweet, who oversees the pilot program and is the managing director for Rockefeller’s health initiative.

Sweet said school districts would benefit from clear federal guidance on how to adopt similar testing protocols and an explanation of who can administer tests.

Tests would also need to be available, he said. “And I think that’s a little bit of a struggle right now.”

“We are getting a number of calls from districts around the country that want to focus on testing, that want to purchase the test, but really don’t know where to get those tests from,” he said.

Giroir said data obtained from the pilot program with Rockefeller will be useful for putting together government guidance. But he said that it may not take testing at the level Rockefeller recommends to get children back into classrooms.

“About half the school districts in the country were open in the fall, and we’re trying to see what they’re doing right now in January, but the rate of transmission from school child to school child is extremely low and the data continue to come out in that way,” he said. “I do believe, and the data show, that you can get back to school safely even without testing.”

The health official, who is advising the Biden team through February, said there could be alternative strategies to what Rockefeller put forward that would achieve the same goal, if Congress does not allocate all of the money advocates have requested or the total number of recommended tests a month cannot be secured.

“It’s possible to do groups of students one week or the following week,” he said.

If a more contagious coronavirus strain spreads in the United States, as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has warned is possible, Giroir said that would make a significant difference in the amount of testing required at schools.

“I’m not gonna say all bets are off but you can’t make the assumption that schools are going to be all that safe,” he said. “If the variant becomes prominent, then I think it’s going to be really important to test everybody once a week for obvious reasons.”

Masks, physical distancing and ventilation are also among the top concerns of teachers’ unions, which have insisted since the start of the pandemic that schools need more money from Congress to successfully apply government health guidance.

“Regular, frequent testing of students and all school employees is, as the Rockefeller report argues, a crucial component of moving us to safe and equitable in-person instruction, but testing alone is not sufficient to get us there,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said.

“Unfortunately, the reality in far too many schools is that effective distancing, mask-wearing, ventilation, contact tracing, and other crucial mitigation strategies are not in place,” she added.

Biden has asked Congress for $50 billion to support testing in schools, prisons, long-term care facilities and underserved communities.

He has also requested $130 billion to help schools safely reopen. The funds could be used to hire more janitors and school nurses, purchase personal protective equipment and carry out coronavirus prevention measures such as reducing class sizes, the White House said.

While vaccine production could soon ramp up, it is still necessary for the federal government to invest in a coronavirus testing plan for schools, freshman Rep. Jake Auchincloss said.

“We’re gonna need this testing, potentially for the next year,” said the Massachusetts Democrat who has made reopening schools an early focus of his tenure in Congress. “So, yes, we do need to invest, and we do need to invest in the program management for this, because we’re going to be doing this for this coming year at least.”

Joe Biden is sworn in as U.S. President during his inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington, DC.  During today's inauguration ceremony Joe Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States.