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Federal agencies to offer free COVID tests to schools; will DeSantis, FL Surgeon General go for it?

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Federal agencies to offer free COVID tests to schools; will DeSantis, FL Surgeon General go for it?

Nov 29, 2023 | 5:37 pm ET
By Christian Casale
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Federal agencies to offer free COVID tests to schools; will DeSantis, FL Surgeon General go for it?
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Classroom. (Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of Education will provide free COVID-19 tests to school districts nationwide, the Biden administration announced Wednesday, as positive cases are expected to increase with the winter season.

“We encourage [districts] to make use of this free COVID-19 test offering, which schools may use, for example, to stock school nurses’ offices and main offices with tests; to send test kits home with students or parents; or to distribute by other means to put these valuable safeguards in the hands of students, parents, and staff who need them,” Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development Roberto Rodriguez said in a statement.

Florida legislation approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis bans any business, school, or government entity from forcing a person to take a COVID-19 test. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education told the Florida Phoenix that interested school districts do not need to go through their respective state, and instead register directly with the federal government.

Neither DeSantis’ office nor the Florida Department of Health responded to a request for comment.

Districts will be responsible for determining how many kits to order, how frequently they will be needed, and where they should be delivered. The spokesperson also said schools will be able to place an order for tests every week and are recommended to order an amount they can distribute in a few weeks.

The program will be done in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. School districts will be able to apply for the tests in early December. After a processing period of 7-10 business days, districts will be able to order test kits directly through an HHS portal.

The number of positive COVID-19 cases in late 2023 is considerably lower than in previous years. Florida reported 27,115 cases in October 2023, a 40 percent decrease from October 2022 and a 65.5 percent decrease from October 2021.

COVID-19 positivity rates have seen a slight downtick this fall, from a weekly reported rate of 14.5 percent on Aug. 26 to an 8.2 percent reported rate on Nov. 18, according to the CDC. However, since 2020, annual positivity rates have historically peaked in mid-summer and mid-winter.

Here’s the letter from the U.S. Department of Education:

November 29, 2023

Dear Colleague,

Thank you for your continued dedication to keeping students and staff safe and schools open for in-person learning. While the COVID-19 virus can be found year-round in the United States, infection rates are typically higher during the fall and winter months. To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the U.S. Department of Education (ED), in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is pleased to offer free, rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests to interested local educational agencies (LEAs).

LEAs may request over-the-counter (OTC) rapid antigen COVID-19 self-tests free of charge for their students, families, staff, and school community. These self-tests are easy to use and can play an important role in containing the spread of the virus in schools and communities. We encourage LEAs to make use of this free COVID-19 test offering, which schools may use, for example, to stock school nurses’ offices and main offices with tests; to send test kits home with students or parents; or to distribute by other means to put these valuable safeguards in the hands of students, parents, and staff who need them. The latest information on COVID-19 prevention in schools, including recommendations on testing, can be found at Operational Guidance for K-12 Schools and Early Care and Education Programs to Support Safe In-Person Learning, and guidance for mitigation of COVID-19 in the community at large can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html.

To participate in the COVID-19 Testing Supply Program, LEAs must complete a one-time registration at this link: https://protect-ows.hhs.gov/ASPR_COVID_DX. Before registering, LEAs should designate an official point of contact (POC) who will be responsible for ordering the COVID-19 self-test kits and managing their delivery and dissemination for the district. No other entities or individuals should access the registration link. When registering online, the designated POC is required to provide basic information, including, LEA ID, LEA Name, and LEA Physical Address. All submissions must be verified. Therefore, please make sure that your LEA’s information matches the information in our system at Search for Public School Districts (ed.gov).

Once registered, POCs are required to participate in a brief training that provides instructions on how to access COVID-19 self-tests at no cost within the HHS Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response’s Health Partner Ordering Portal (HPOP). This training webinar will be held on December 6th, 2023 at 1 pm EST. Once the one-time registration process is successfully completed, LEAs will receive instructions on how to participate in the training. LEAs that are unable to attend the training scheduled for December 6th will be provided access to a recording of the training and ancillary materials. LEAs will be able to order COVID-19 tests after participating in the training, and ordering will continue while supplies last. Orders will be shipped directly to a designated delivery address within the school district and should arrive within approximately 14 days. For information about the COVID-19 Testing Supply Program, visit https://www.ed.gov/Coronavirus.

Sincerely,

Roberto J. Rodríguez
Assistant Secretary for Office of Planning,
Evaluation, and Policy Development
U.S. Department of Education