An avalanche of student Covid-19 test kits covered a FedEx drop box in Chicago. Long lines and delayed deliveries slowed school testing sites in California. And families scrambled across U.S. cities to find scarce rapid tests.
The White House and government leaders say classrooms must stay open during a record surge in Omicron-driven cases — but short supplies, logistical challenges and workforce problems threaten to trip up the country’s patchwork efforts to test schoolchildren for the virus as they return to class.
“This is reminiscent of October 2020, when we only had so many antigen tests to go around and it was literally the Hunger Games. States were really competing to try to get the supply that they needed,” said Leah Perkinson, the pandemic manager for the Rockefeller Foundation, which has collaborated with the Education Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to expand the country’s school testing programs.
“There are supply constraints and folks aren’t able to do what they want to do, or continue to do what they’re doing. And that’s frustrating,” she said.
Political turmoil is adding to tension between educators and districts. A lack of confidence in Chicago’s school Covid testing regime contributed to a Tuesday teachers union vote to halt in-person classes for up to two weeks, while San Francisco teachers decried an “inept and negligent” rollout of virus test kits as more than 620 staff called out sick Tuesday.
The complaints are drawing criticism from President Joe Biden and the White House, which this week pointed to billions of dollars in education aid that’s available to schools and includes a $10 billion fund for school testing.
“They have what they need,” Biden said of the nation’s schools on Tuesday.
“That money went out to the states. And the states and the school districts have spent this money well — many of them. But, unfortunately, some haven’t,” he said. White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated Wednesday that the nation is “more than equipped to ensure schools are open” and said that was the case “including in Chicago.”
Delays in California still meant the state couldn’t meet Gov. Gavin Newsom’s deadline to ship millions of diagnostics to schools over winter break. Indiana’s health department is limiting access to rapid Covid tests at government screening sites to prioritize children and older symptomatic adults, because the state says it’s now only guaranteed to receive a fraction of the tests it typically uses each week.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis continued to pound on the Biden administration for its slow rollout of at-home Covid-19 tests. But the Republican governor bashed schools that require teachers and students to test negative for Covid-19 to attend class.
“It’s not good policy to use testing as a tool to basically limit opportunity and limit people’s ability to get an education,” DeSantis told reporters this week in Naples.
Meanwhile, the new chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools system declared it was “impossible” for his city to access rapid tests.
“If you want to get us back into the schools quicker, provide testing,” Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said Wednesday, after city officials canceled school to block the union’s bid to unilaterally move to remote classes. “Do what [Washington] D.C. has done, do what New York has done, do what Los Angeles has done, do what Cleveland has done.”
The ‘heavy lift’ of setting up testing programs
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has promoted frequent virus testing of schoolchildren as part of a strategy backed by federal health officials to keep students in class rather than quarantining at home if they’re exposed to the disease.
So-called test to stay programs allow exposed children to remain at school, typically as long as they’re asymptomatic, wear masks and regularly test negative. Similar practices had already begun to take hold in school districts across the country before the CDC embraced the practice in mid-December.
Schools today should theoretically have access to resources needed to build out basic testing programs, Perkinson of the Rockefeller Foundation said, thanks to federal support. The challenge is that building a repetitive “test to stay” program can be challenging for schools — especially those that haven’t already set up a more basic testing procedure.
“It is a heavy lift for folks who are doing testing for the first time,” Perkinson said.
“Because it requires logistics and coordination, you need staff and people to do that,” she said. “What we’ve heard from schools and districts across the country is that staffing is really one of the biggest barriers to implementing testing in general.”
Lagging laboratory turnaround times and scant supplies of rapid antigen tests added to the problem in Chicago. The school system said it obtained 150,000 home tests for students in communities that had high virus positivity rates and low vaccination rates. But only a fraction of those tests were returned before classes briefly resumed this week, with the overwhelming majority deemed “invalid” because of processing delays.
“One of my biggest frustrations, and I’ve been very open about this, is just the lack of capacity of testing in our city and for our district of 330,000 children,” district CEO Pedro Martinez said Tuesday, hours before the union vote to return to remote classes canceled school.
“It is difficult to get timely results right now,” he said. “It is impossible for us to get rapid tests… We just don’t have them available, folks.”
City officials again canceled all classes Thursday. Mayor Lori Lightfoot blamed the union for an “unlawful unilateral strike” and asserted that Chicago schools are “the safest place for our children.”
Delivery delays could challenge California testing plans
Newsom promised to send 6 million at-home virus tests to every district ahead of winter break so schools could check their students for Covid-19 before letting them back into classrooms this week and next. Only half made it to schools by that deadline.
While 3 million tests went out before New Year’s, 1 million tests didn’t get to counties until Monday. Another 1.5 million are shipping this week after what the California Department of Public Health said were weather-related logistical delays.
The health agency said California officials also sent 2 million home Covid tests to 3,000 schools and that “many schools” handed home test kits to students when they left for winter break.
While some districts got at least some tests over the winter break, San Diego — the state’s second largest district — didn’t get any until this week. The health department said some of the San Diego supply landed on Monday and the rest was slated to come Tuesday.
If the shortfall continues, it could cut into the state public health department’s easing of quarantine rules for student exposures.
Under the current recommendations, unvaccinated, mask-wearing students can stay in school after exposure as long as they’re asymptomatic, keep their faces covered, undergo regular testing and skip extracurricular activities. The change has helped districts that last year had to deal with 10-day quarantine periods. A prolonged shortage of tests could collide with this guidance, said Kevin Gordon, president of Capitol Advisors Group, the biggest lobbying firm for public schools in California.
“It’s wonderful you have a shorter quarantine period but if you don’t have tests, it completely undermines the benefit of that determination,” he said.
New York’s county-based testing system sees slow uptake
New York’s state health department recently issued K-12 guidance that allows local health departments to decide if “test to stay” will be allowed in individual counties. Schools in counties where local health officials approve the strategy can then decide if they want to implement it in their campuses.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul told reporters this week that the state had already sent 5.2 million Covid-19 test kits to schools with the express purpose of keeping kids in classrooms or allowing those who are exposed to the virus to return quicker.
The state is set to receive an additional 3.7 million kits, Hochul said, and planned to send them home with students.
But the state’s decision to leave counties in charge of implementing the policy has created frustration, said Robert Lowry of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. Since a significant number of New York school districts stretch across multiple counties, Lowry argued, the policy should instead be applied statewide.
New York State Association of Counties Executive Director Stephen Acquario said the strategy remains an “evolving issue,” with some counties and school districts choosing not to participate in any version of the program.
For those that do approve such programs, questions remain over things like how many tests a family with multiple school-aged children will receive after an exposure, or how districts will confirm the right person took a test.
“Everybody’s struggling with the same problem, and that is to make sure that people have access to tests,” Acquario said. “It’s very hard. Whether you’re in school or outside the school, it is confusing, very confusing — and it’s county specific.”