The Biden administration has committed $10 billion to fund COVID-19 testing programs for schools across the country, officials announced Wednesday.
The funding will be matched with “extensive” new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about how to set up screening in schools and communities and when to test teachers, staff and students, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said.
The money for school testing comes from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law last week. The bill includes more than $47 billion for testing under the Department of Health and Human Services and another $120 billion for K-12 schools to reopen.
The Biden administration made it an early goal for most schools to reopen in the president’s first 100 days, but CDC guidance released last month created confusion when it classified the majority of school districts as “red” zones based on COVID-19 cases in the community, a classification that the agency said should restrict reopening.
Officials have said that the funding in the American Rescue Plan would boost reopening once it passed. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona has made reopening his primary focus, and he’s expected to hold a summit next week on the issues. First Lady Dr. Jill Biden will deliver the opening remarks for the summit, Cardona said Wednesday.
While testing programs to screen teachers and kids are not a requirement of the CDC’s reopening guidance, the agency said it could be an “additional layer of mitigation” for schools.
The $10 billion now set aside will help set up screening programs in collaboration with local health departments, officials said.
“Every state in America will have access to millions of dollars to set up screening testing programs to add a layer of protection for schools, teachers and students,” said Carole Johnson, the White House Testing Coordinator.
“CDC will work with state and local health departments to support technical assistance to help schools and states in standing up and implementing these programs,” she added.
Later Wednesday, Secretary Cardona called testing a way to speed up reopening.
“The goal really is [that] this spring we want our students back in school, as quickly, as safely as possible, and that's going to assist in that process,” Cardona said in a White House press briefing. Cardona demurred when asked when schools should expect to see the funds for testing, saying the administration is “looking to get that soon.”
However, the amount of testing supplies has fluctuated throughout the pandemic. On Wednesday, Johnson said they’re hoping to partially lean on funding in the American Rescue Plan for that as well.
“We are carefully monitoring supply,” she said. “The federal government is continuing to work to build up the federal supply schedule to ensure people have easy access to affordable testing.”
Last month, the administration previously announced more than $1 billion in funding for testing supplies and expanded access, including some for K-8 schools.
Health officials also signaled that they were looking at whether they could relax guidance on if 3 feet was safe for physical distancing in schools rather than 6 feet.
A new study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases found no significant difference in COVID-19 infection rates at Massachusetts schools that required 3 feet of distance vs. the currently recommended 6 feet.
"We are looking at these data carefully," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said ths week. "The question actually prompted more studies to be done, so we know more are forthcoming. We're taking all of those data carefully and revisiting our guidances in that context."
"Science evolves," Dr. Walensky said at a Congressional hearing Wednesday. "We are looking to update our guidance."
"When the data shows that there is an ability to be 3 feet, [the CDC] will act accordingly," Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN on Sunday. "The CDC is very well aware that data are accumulating making it look more like 3 feet are okay under certain circumstances."