The White House will send “hundreds of thousands” of COVID test kits to Newark and four other New Jersey school districts as the Biden administration races to ramp up testing in schools, Newark officials said Tuesday.
The kits are part of President Biden’s new plan to ship 10 million coronavirus tests to schools each month in a bid to keep classrooms open in the face of the highly contagious omicron variant. The shipments are expected to begin this month and include rapid tests that provide results on site and PCR tests, which must be analyzed in labs, the White House said, adding that states had to request the free tests.
New Jersey chose five districts, including Newark, to receive the free tests, Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León said at a school board meeting Tuesday.
“We’re extremely excited and honored and proud,” he said, adding that the tests are “going to be arriving in a couple of days, so they’re moving very, very quickly.”
A district spokesperson did not respond to emailed questions Wednesday morning, including the exact number of incoming tests.
Separately, León said the district hopes to provide every student and staff member with a home test kit before spring break so they can get tested before returning to school.
Omicron caused a surge in COVID cases this winter, prompting the Newark school district and most charter schools to switch to remote learning after winter break. District schools reopened last week, and since then new cases have sharply declined.
The coronavirus tests the White House is sending schools can be used to regularly screen staff members and students to catch asymptomatic cases, according to the Biden administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. They can also be put towards a “test-to-stay” approach, which allows unvaccinated students who have been in close contact with an infected person to remain in school rather than quarantine if the students repeatedly test negative.
Staffing and test shortages have made districts slow to adopt the test-to-stay approach, which New Jersey allows but does not require. Newark has yet to institute that strategy, but León said Tuesday that the additional test kits could make it possible.
“We’re obviously looking at that, making some final decisions,” he told the board. “We’re still in the process of waiting for details on the shipment as well as on clearer guidance.”
Dr. Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, said the forthcoming shipment of COVID tests is “good news for Newark.” He added that testing can help curb the spread of COVID in schools, which is important since some students remain unvaccinated.
“The best possible mitigation strategies are testing regularly, requiring masks, and making sure people are getting vaccinated,” he said.
Last fall, New Jersey offered federal funding to cover the cost of routine COVID testing in any district that wanted it. After a months-long delay, Newark began offering weekly testing in schools late last year, district officials said.
However, the district has struggled to obtain parental consent for testing, which has limited its reach. At the Dec. 21 board meeting, León said just under 12,000 students, or about a third of the student population, had submitted consent forms. (The district spokesperson did not respond to a request Wednesday for the latest count.)
At Tuesday’s meeting, board member Vereliz Santana urged families to complete the forms so the district can expand its testing program.
“It’s so important in terms of containment and preventing the spread of the virus,” she said.
Every household in the U.S. can now order four free at-home COVID tests through a new federal website. New Jersey residents can also order a free saliva-based test, where a sample is taken at home and shipped for free to a lab.
León said Tuesday that the district will provide all employees and students with at-home tests before spring break begins April 18. The tests will help prevent people who become infected over break from carrying the virus to schools, he said.
“We’re going to make sure that you have a kit,” he said, “so that you test on the days before your return back to school so that we make sure that every school environment continues to remain safe.”
Catherine Carrera contributed reporting.