Jan 12, 2022 - Health

Biden ramps up school testing strategy as Omicron disrupts education

  President Joe Biden speaks to a crowd at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, part of both Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University on January 11, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia.

President Biden speaks to a crowd in Atlanta, Georgia, on Tuesday. Photo: Megan Varner/Getty Images

The Biden administration announced Wednesday it's increasing the number of COVID-19 tests available to schools by 10 million per month — as the Omicron variant drives a surge in cases and causes widespread disruption to education.

Why it matters: While it appears Omicron causes less severe illness than other variants, it's still placing a strain on health care systems and causing a drop in teacher and student attendance.

  • Many school districts are struggling to keep classrooms staffed. Some 4,561 U.S. schools either shifted to virtual classes or closed temporarily for at least one day last week.
  • The Biden administration's announcement builds on its "test-to-stay" strategy that aims to keep students in school, which was unveiled last month.

The big picture: The administration "will distribute 5 million free, rapid tests to schools each month to help K-12 schools stay open and to implement and sustain screening testing and test to stay programs," according to a White House fact sheet.

  • It will make lab capacity available to support an additional 5 million PCR tests per month for schools to perform individual and pooled testing in classrooms nationwide.
  • The administration is also deploying federal surge testing units to support free testing access for students, school staff and families at community testing sites —  a policy aimed at assisting the hardest-hit and highest-risk communities and supporting safe operations of K-12 schools.

The administration is also connecting schools with COVID-19 testing providers to set up school testing programs using funds from the American Rescue Plan — the coronavirus stimulus package enacted last March.

  • There will also be further training, resources and materials for implementing "test-to-stay" in schools, according to the White House.

By the numbers: Despite the burdens caused by the pandemic, 96% of schools have remained open for in-person classes so far this month, compared to 46% in January last year, per the White House.

  • With the additional 10 million tests per month, the administration said it will "make available to schools more than double the volume of testing that took place in schools across the nation in November," the most recent data available on the matter.

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