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The Rockefeller Foundation’s New Plan Provides Covid-19 Testing Strategy to Open All of America’s Public Schools by March

Calls for 300 million Covid-19 tests per month and $42.5 billion in funding to protect K-12 schools

NEW YORK | 16 December 2020 – As pandemic deaths and infections soar across the United States, a new National Covid-19 Testing Action Plan from The Rockefeller Foundation calls on the U.S. government to massively scale up Covid-19 testing to 300 million per month for students, teachers, and staff in order to reopen and keep open America’s nearly 100,000 public schools by March. The Plan, TAKING BACK CONTROL: A Resetting of America’s Response to Covid-19, lays out a new plan for the largest domestic testing scale-up to date and proposes 14 executive actions for the current and incoming administrations to take in order to rapidly alter the trajectory of the pandemic in the United States. Testing all U.S. public K-12 public schools would cost $42.5 billion, or $8.5 billion per month for the remainder of the school year (February-June 2021).

With recent studies demonstrating that about half of Covid-19 infected children never show symptoms, school closures were prudent measures to protect teachers and students when appropriate mitigation measures were too difficult and testing capacity was insufficient to rapidly identify Covid-19 cases that do not have symptoms but can still spread the virus.

“Over the last 11 months, Americans have been reminded again how essential teachers are to our children, our communities, and our economy.  To open our schools faster, they need to be prioritized in the next round of vaccinations,” said Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, President of The Rockefeller Foundation. “Since it will take some time for vaccines to be widespread and ubiquitous, this new plan represents the most practical, pragmatic, and achievable plan to reopen K-12 education in America using the tools and tests we have to make public school classrooms the safest place to be outside of the home.”

Reopening schools is top priority – for our kids and our economy

In-person instruction is central to a strong economy not only because of its educational benefit but also because tens of millions of adults cannot work effectively, or at all until their children are back in the classroom consistently. For many, the stakes are high. For children, schools are vital sources of nutrition, socialization, and learning but only about a third of students are attending any in-person classes today.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the already existing disparities in our nation’s public education system,” said John King, President and CEO of The Education Trust and former Secretary of Education under President Obama. “Students, especially those most underserved, aren’t missing during this crisis — they are very much present and schools and districts need the resources now to help them. We know there’s a socioemotional toll and mental health toll for kids and families. We also know there are 30 million kids who get their meals at school each day during a regular school year.  As a country, we have a moral responsibility to figure out how we safely get students back to school and we now have an evidence base that we can leverage in doing that.”

The Plan recommends testing students at least once a week and teachers and staff twice a week and reopening in three waves with:

  • Public elementary schools opening first by February 1;
  • Public middle schools opening about two weeks later; and
  • Public high schools opening in March.

“Mounting this aggressive testing system in every one of the national public schools over a six-week period will be the most Herculean task the American educational system has ever undertaken,” said Dr. Rick Klausner, Co-founder of Milky Way Advisers. “It will require that everyone involved in education and school administration be committed to success.”

As testing becomes more widespread, support is growing. A recent survey of 1,600 adults conducted for The Rockefeller Foundation found large support for routine testing. Nearly 86% said they would likely get tested for Covid-19, if offered at work, and just slightly fewer said they would allow their child to get tested routinely at school.

In addition to the $42.5 billion needed for testing in schools, the American Federation of Teachers has estimated costs for staffing, supplies, and other resources to be $116.5 billion.

Ramping up testing capacity, effectiveness, and turnaround time

In order for the recommended 300 million Covid-19 tests per month to be available starting in February and continuing through June for students, teachers, and staff at all public K-12 schools, America’s current testing supply would have to increase to match the elevated demand. U.S. manufacturers are on track to do just that.

“In the coming months, we expect an avalanche of pooled, rapid, and point-of-care Covid-19 tests that will help allow this type of pro-active testing to routinely take place,” said Mara Aspinall, Co-Founder and Professor of Practice, Biomedical Diagnostics at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions. “By the end of January, the country will likely be able to conduct almost 100 million tests each week, a number that is expected to double to 200 million tests per week by April.”

To make sure the supply meets the real-time demand, the plan also indicates that the U.S. government would need to centralize procurement and payment for all tests and test supplies for schools.  One way to facilitate the distribution at the state and local level would be for the federal government to tap into and expand The Rockefeller Foundation’s State and Territory Alliance for Testing (STAT).  The bipartisan, interstate testing Alliance, which currently consists of 21 states and the District of Columbia, is committed to purchasing and deploying rapid-result tests and supplies needed to beat back the pandemic.

“School districts need a sufficient supply of tests and testing supports that are reliable, straightforward to implement, and provide timely results,” said Dr. Mark McClellan, Director, Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University. “PCR tests with 24-hour time to results are already being used by a growing number of school districts as a key part of their safe reopening strategies.”

The challenge with PCR tests has been the slow turnaround time for results, particularly at times when they are in high demand.  The Plan calls for the government to invest in expansion of PCR lab capacity throughout the country by building or expanding 6 to 10 very high throughput regional labs and equip them to ensure 24-hour or less turnaround time.

“Antigen tests are ideal for identifying those most likely to transmit infections to others, especially when administered at scale. Their nearly instant results, low costs, and widening availability make them a good choice,” said Dr. Mike Pellini, Managing Partner of Section 32. “Regardless of the test selected, rapid results are key to providing real-time data about where the virus is surging and subsiding, so you can more efficiently target your resources – and more effectively control the pandemic.”

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Plan encourages the federal government to reduce or deny payment for Covid-19 tests that deliver results more than 48 hours after sampling.

Building-in surge capacity for schools

In order to rapidly ramp up testing efforts that work, public health surge capacity will be necessary.  The Public Health Commissioned Corps are the deployable health experts to provide hands-on support in response to public health emergencies.

The report recommends that the U.S. government use the Public Health Service’s Commissioned Corps and provide financial support for rapid training and deployment of the workforce needed to support proactive testing.  The corps’ 6,000 officers should offer in-person guidance and coordination for the nation’s 13,000 school districts.

Combatting misinformation & disinformation

In this pandemic, the “infodemic” of misinformation and disinformation is putting lives at risk and must be addressed.

“Like all new disease outbreaks, scientific understanding of Covid-19 is evolving, public health advice changes as more is learned, and misinformation (unintentional or malicious) endangers students and teachers alike,” said Dr. Jonathan Quick, Managing Director of Pandemic Response, Preparedness and Prevention, The Rockefeller Foundation and Author, The End of Epidemics.  “Clear, coordinated, and consistent communication at all levels is vital.”

Helping people find trustworthy information is compounded by the sheer number of news outlets and social medial platforms.  Their inconsistent policies for addressing inaccurate information, cause confusion, and complicate the public health response.

The Plan recommends a series of actions ranging from regular press conferences with top scientific advisers to get media access to accurate information, to newsroom workshops, to national campaigns, to engaging with social media organizations to improve responsibility, and reaction to shutting down inaccurate information.  Even with a strong testing program in place, students, teachers, and staff must still be diligent with other safety measures like masks, distancing, ventilation, and frequent handwashing to mitigate spread.

In addition to a clear reopening Plan and 14 recommended executive actions, the Plan offers examples of best practices, lessons learned, and case studies from relevant projects already underway across the country.

About The Rockefeller Foundation
The Rockefeller Foundation advances new frontiers of science, data, and innovation to solve global challenges related to health, food, power, and economic mobility.  As a science-driven philanthropy focused on building collaborative relationships with partners and grantees, The Rockefeller Foundation seeks to inspire and foster large-scale human impact that promotes the well-being of humanity throughout the world by identifying and accelerating breakthrough solutions, ideas, and conversations.  For more information, sign up for our newsletter at and follow us on Twitter @RockefellerFdn.

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