White House senior education adviser on how schools can access COVID testing to curb Omicron amid ‘supply crisis’

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Omicron’s push may be peaking in parts of the United States, but schools continue to bend under the weight of high student and staff numbers – and as school leaders struggle to keep their open house, many districts have found themselves short of a reliable-on resource: COVID testing.

There is a “COVID testing supply crisis” that will impact schools in Michigan, Linda Vail, health officer for Ingham County in central Michigan, said last Wednesday. The state is working to provide testing kits to schools in the highest-risk communities where COVID is most prevalent, she said. States from Florida to Washington have also faced similar shortages.

Last week, the Biden administration announced it was “doubling” its commitment to keeping schools safe in person by providing an additional 10 million monthly COVID tests to K-12 facilities nationwide — 5 million rapid and 5 million PCR.

In December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved “test to stay” protocols that allow students and staff who may have been exposed to COVID to stay in school buildings, provided they test negative for the virus before crossing the front doors. .

But where testing supplies are dwindling, it can lead to serious problems in school operations.

Most schools across the country managed to stay open for three weeks after the winter break. But an average of more than 5,300 schools a week were disrupted by brief closures or pivots to virtual learning as they faced high workloads and staffing shortages, according to the data service. K-12 Burbio.

Earlier this month, more than 980,000 new youth COVID cases were reported nationwide, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the largest weekly total to date and nearly four times the tallest tally. bred before Omicron.

To help deal with the current outbreak, Asher Lehrer-Small spoke with White House Senior Education Policy Advisor Mary Wall, who shared how schools can use the new testing resources available. .

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Asher Lehrer-Small: Testing in schools is such a key issue right now during the Omicron surge and some officials say they may soon run out of supply. What is your message to school leaders on how to access testing?

Mary Wall: Of course. We’ve really put a lot of effort into making sure schools have everything they need to reopen and stay open safely and testing has been central to that effort. It was the basic investments this administration made, starting with the US bailout, that really helped ensure schools could be ready for this moment.

Marie Mur (LinkedIn)

Across the country, many, many schools are implementing testing right now and building on the existing testing programs they already have in place. We know that schools kind of come from a lot of different places and a lot of different levels of experience, so we want to make sure it’s easy for everyone to access the tests as well as the [strategies for] set up tests at school.

The biggest headline is the $10 billion we have invested in the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capability (ELC) program at CDC. It gave states $10 billion to set up testing programs for schools and we’ve seen significant movement from states doing just that.

We are building on this with the re-announcement of 5 million rapid antigen tests, as well as expanding capacity through Operation Expanded Testing to reach an additional 5 million. [through PCR testing] with laboratory capacity each month.

So that $10 billion investment, those 5 million rapid tests and 5 million PCR tests, those are big numbers. I’m curious, what are the mechanics going on here? And what might some school leaders not understand that could prevent them from accessing the tests that are available to them?

Testing can be a tough business for schools, and schools have been asked to do a lot during the pandemic. We considered it our duty to facilitate access to resources for schools as much as possible.

With the news we announced last week, we have measures in place for schools to follow immediately. The first and most important would be to tap into the state’s existing testing initiatives. Every state has something in place for K-12 COVID-19 testing and it varies by state what exactly it looks like. But we have created a resource on the CDC website which is basically a directory of each state’s approach that the school can go to right now and click through to learn more about what their state is doing for K-12 testing. . This page will lead them to how to get involved in their state’s program.

A screenshot of the CDC’s webpage on state school COVID testing programs.

If they want to use the 5 million antigen tests we currently offer, these are usually requested by state health departments. And they… submit requests to the CDC for these (based on local needs). But the testing resources fueled by the $10 billion in ELC funds, these are available now and schools can tap into them immediately.

Operation Expanded Testing, which is the free laboratory testing (PCR) capability we offer as the federal government, which is also available and open for service at this time. Schools can go online to the Operation ET website, click on the regional hub link, and they can begin the process immediately…and can begin in as little as seven days after that.

We also want to remind all schools that they can also connect to other testing providers that operate in their state and use their ESSR. [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund] dollars. So there’s $132 billion doled out through the US bailout for states and school districts. Testing is an authorized use of funds and we have seen many school districts [use] this stream of funding to implement personalized programs in their schools — and this has been in large districts and in small districts.

It’s fantastic. And after the announcement earlier this month, what kind of responses has the U.S. Department of Education received from K-12 leaders?

We received a lot of interesting and exciting responses about the tests. It sort of falls into two different categories.

First, we have received a lot of very enthusiastic and positive feedback from districts who have already conducted testing. … Those [school systems] have been really eager to take this to the next level. I know there have been districts doing weekly screening, for example, and are happy to expand that into a testing program to stay. There are others who have done diagnostic tests and have decided, we really want to expand the screening tests that we do in our schools to be weekly to cover more children and this new investment is going to help to allow this.

We’ve also heard from many districts that haven’t done testing and said they can’t wait to take advantage of it. They know that the current surge has really resulted in a significant increase in cases, including with children, and they want to make sure they can use it as a key line of defense in their school buildings. And so for them, you know, [our role has] been how can we help you implement successful testing in your building. We jumped into this right away, providing technical assistance and support to school districts.

We’re offering more this week, we’re going to be offering it every week for the next few weeks to make sure that no matter where you are in your testing journey, if you’re a school that wants to implement testing who you are able to do it. That you not only have the means to do so in terms of testing, but also know how to use them effectively in your building.

Some people would say the most recent expansion of K-12 testing is a great effort, but it came too late to help schools respond with agility to Omicron’s push. [Though of course, there might be subsequent surges.] I wonder what your answer is.

I disagree with this assessment. I think we have made our commitment to keeping schools safe and open very clear. We have made this commitment clear in the US bailout, which provided $130 billion to K-12 schools through the Department of [Education] and $10 billion for K-12 COVID-19 testing. We’ve seen states take that money and put testing approaches in place starting in April of last year. So we look forward to leveraging this investment. And we’ve seen across the country that schools that were already implementing testing strategies have been able to use them very effectively in this current wave.

And last question here. Clearly, the White House has placed itself on the front line of this shortage of testing in schools. I’m curious if the Department of Education also sees itself as responsible for helping to address the staffing shortages that many schools have been facing recently?

As an administration, we see the staffing issues that arise and we take them very seriously.

We passed the US bailout specifically to make sure we could have more staff in school buildings, both to accommodate mitigation strategies like social distancing, but also to make sure that schools have all the people they need to ensure that students can return safely and have their needs met after this completely unprecedented time.

Above all, we would like to remind school districts and states that they have this $130 billion to spend on additional staff, to retain the staff they have, to pay the staff they have more money for, and to really ensure all the staff they need in response to the pandemic can be met.

We’ve also really tried to make it clear that there are flexibilities that exist, whether it’s in how you approach retirees or other people who were formerly teachers, the ways you can hire bus drivers, creative uses to bring more staff into the buildings to ensure we can meet the school’s staffing needs.


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