Free COVID tests headed to nation’s schools

a COVID test
School districts across the country will be able to order free COVID-19 tests from the federal government starting in early December. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)

Schools across the U.S. will soon be able to order free rapid COVID-19 tests from the federal government.

The Biden administration’s initiative will make available millions of tests for school districts as they enter the winter months — a time when COVID activity is expected to peak. Already, emergency department visits and wastewater data indicate that cases are climbing in the U.S.

Schools can begin ordering tests in early December, the administration said.

While there have been some smaller efforts to distribute rapid tests to schools, this represents the first time that 19,000 school districts will have the ability to order tests directly from a federal stockpile, says Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response within the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We really would like to see these tests move into communities, especially as we hit this fall and winter season,” says O’Connell, who leads the Administration for Strategic Response and Preparedness, a division of HHS.

Many schools have relaxed their COVID policies and how they handle testing for the virus since the height of the pandemic, but O’Connell says there still appears to be plenty of demand for testing in schools.

“We are optimistic that the school districts across the country will take advantage of these free tests and put them to use,” she says.

No restrictions on how schools use the tests

Schools will have the freedom to use the tests however they see fit. O’Connell says they’ll “encourage” school districts to share them with students, staff, family members and others in the community.

“I can imagine a situation where a student in one of the classes has COVID and a teacher sends everybody home with a COVID test in their backpack,” she says.

The initiative reflects the federal government’s effort to expand testing in community settings, even as some polling suggests the public is less apt to test and take precautions around the virus. A recent survey by the nonprofit KFF found half of adults aren’t taking any precautions against COVID this fall and winter. Among those who are only 18% said they are taking a COVID test before visiting with family or friends.

Currently, about 4 million free tests are being distributed to long-term care facilities, food banks and community health centers. The federal government also announced that each household in the U.S. can order an additional four free at-home tests on top of the four made available earlier this fall.

We don’t want anyone’s ability to pay for the test to be an obstacle,” O’Connell says.

The school initiative is expected to last through the winter months. The only condition on order volume will be that schools request as many tests as they can use within a few weeks.

Current tests still detect key variants

Even with new omicron variants in circulation, rapid antigen tests are still holding up well, says Nate Hafer, an associate professor of molecular medicine at UMass Chan Medical School who has studied how rapid tests performed in identifying infections with delta and omicron variants.

“These tests are able to detect the variants that are circulating out in the world today,” says Hafer.

Rapid antigen tests work best when people already have symptoms. Even if someone is infected, they may test negative during the early stages of the infection, he says.

“If you are negative, but you have symptoms or if you’ve been exposed to somebody that you know has SARS-CoV-2, test again 48 hours later,” says Hafer. “Testing multiple times is really the best way to be most sure about whether or not that you were infected.”

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