Lawmakers and school leaders have expressed concerns around schools' continued limited access to COVID-19 tests, as well as slim testing bandwidth due to staff shortages for administering and documenting regular testing.
The shortage persists despite billions of dollars invested by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to expand school-based screening for both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals.
In places where funds are limited, staff bandwidth is slim or distribution is slow, some districts are compelled to forego regular testing, despite screening being a central part of guidance released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Of course, if the schools are still asking about testing, it seems you have failed to communicate to them how to access these dollars," Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, said to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra during a Sept. 30 meeting of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Burr added "if people still cannot access rapid tests when stores are out of stock and people go back to waiting days for testing results, you have squandered the gains we made in scaling up capacity last year."
For schools, the problem is multi-faceted.
"Districts that originally were getting tests from the state — those supplies are running really low, and so they're having to try to get their providers to give them these tests and who can run the lab for the tests," said Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director for AASA, The School Superintendents Association. "They're not closing schools, they're just not having testing."
Jennifer Bronson, chief of staff for Tennessee's Hamilton County School District, said in an email there is "more just a general concern that we burned through so many tests in the first month of school, that we wouldn’t be able to keep that pace for long" as a result of supply chain issues.
Meanwhile, a recent survey showed the majority of parents of color needed COVID-19 testing in place, among other safety measures, to feel safe while sending their children to school in person, Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington and chair of the HELP Committee, said during the hearing. "Yet we know these things are not happening consistently for our families," she said.
However, according to other officials, the issue is not so much supply as it is strategic and timely distribution and coordination.
"There is a supply of test kits available," said Becerra. "It's that the demand has grown dramatically, and demand for certain types of tests so that the distribution has been difficult to get to certain places."
Demand, he said, has increased "month over month" as much as as 300% to 650% and is not evenly spread across the nation. "That's why you see pockets where people say, 'There's a shortage.'"
Becerra also said his agency is working on expanding production test kits.
In a separate press conference hosted by the White House on Oct. 1, Jeff Zients, White House COVID-19 response coordinator, echoed these points, maintaining "overall testing capacity across the country remains robust." However, he said, the government is pushing manufacturers to increase capacity and drive down the cost of tests.
In the Hamilton County School District, Bronson said, "Things have slowed down, and we aren’t using as many tests as a district, and the supply chain seems to be strengthening." However, the district continues to limit testing to only staff and symptomatic students.