Biden pledges more US school COVID tests in bid to avoid closures

The initiative comes as the White House faces mounting criticism over long lines and supply shortages for testing. 

School testing in the US
A woman wearing a winter coat gets tested for COVID-19 at a mobile testing site in New York [File: Seth Wenig/The Associated Press]

The administration of President Joe Biden has announced it will provide an additional 10 million coronavirus tests a month to schools across the country in a bid to avert closures amid a spike in cases fuelled by the Omicron variant.

The White House on Wednesday said it would make available five million lab-based PCR tests and five million rapid tests monthly starting in January to ease supply shortages and to help schools safely reopen following the holiday break.

The additional support will add to the about $10bn devoted to school-based tests authorised in the COVID-19 relief law and about $130bn earmarked in that law to keep kids in school, according to the administration.

In a news release on Wednesday, the White House said the new measures are projected to double the monthly number of tests administered in schools compared with the amount given in November 2021, the most recent available data.

The administration “will do all that it can to keep schools safely open for all students”, the White House said, adding that about 96 percent of US schools remained open in January 2022, up from 46 percent in January of 2021.

The new initiative came as the White House faces mounting criticism for long lines and supply shortages for testing.

It also comes after the nation’s third-largest public school system, in Chicago, closed for days after an impasse between teachers and officials over reopening policies.

“We have been very clear, publicly and privately, that we want to see schools open,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.

She added the massive amount of funding for schools as evidence of the administration ensuring “we were prepared and had resources needed to address whatever may come up in the pandemic.”

Still, the new crop of tests is enough to cover only a small fraction of the more than 50 million students and educators in the nation’s schools.

The administration says the new tests will fill critical shortfalls in schools that are having difficulty securing tests through existing federal funding or are facing outbreaks of the more transmissible COVID-19 variant.

The administration is also working to target other federally backed testing sites to support school testing programmes, including locating Federal Emergency Management Agency sites at schools.

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is set to release new guidance later this week to help schools implement “test-to-stay” policies, in which schools use rapid tests to check the close contacts of children who have tested positive in the classroom.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies