On Friday, February 12, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) updated their school reopening guidelines under the Biden Administration. The expansive document functionally suggested a layered approach of COVID-19 transmission mitigation strategies from mask-wearing, to podding within the school, to ventilation improvements, vaccination plans, and more. One not-insignificant layer of these mitigation measures includes the expansion of testing of students and teachers. These tests are recommended not just for students and teachers who have been exposed to COVID or are symptomatic, but also regular screening testing at random to stop an outbreak before it really starts.
The subtext to all of these measures — from the CDC guidelines to the push from President Biden to reopen schools within 100 days of his first day in the office — is that schools, quite frankly, need tons of money to do it.
President Biden has already pledged some $50 billion to the massive expansion of COVID-19 testing in his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package that would include the expansion of availability and use of rapid tests, expanding lab capacity to process tests more quickly, and giving direct aid to schools and state and local governments to enact their own testing programs.
But that bill is still not yet passed, and may not for some time. Then there’s the matter of getting the money to the places that money needs to go. Time is, of course, of the essence. So in the meantime, the Biden administration has decided to provide stopgap funding to schools and local governments to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in order to ramp up testing as quickly as possible.
So, on Wednesday, February 17th, White House officials announced that they would be giving $650 million disbursed through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense to build out “regional coordinating centers” to boost that very same lab capacity to process tests for schools. The centers will pair high-capacity labs with schools and places like homeless shelters in order to increase testing and the speed at which testing can be processed.
The White House will also give $815 million to ramp up testing supply production domestically and $200 million more to go into tracing the COVID-19 variants that are more contagious and therefore potentially more deadly, as they could crush an already overwhelmed hospital system.
Of the move, Carol Johnson, the Biden administration testing coordinator, said: “This funding will serve… as a pilot until [President Joe Biden’s relief plan] is enacted. We want to work quickly to help get support underway in these priority settings.” She also noted that the funding is simply a bridge to the $50 billion that will go to schools and local governments to ramp up preventative and overall testing that is necessary to open schools more safely.
Indeed, it appears the Biden administration is acknowledging the “quiet part” of the school reopening discussions: schools simply need way more money than they have in order to do anything the CDC recommended, and after decades of systemic public education funding inequities and cuts, that money is the difference between being able to open safely or not. There is no choice but to fund the schools.