The Biden administration unveiled a new strategy Friday using increased Covid-19 testing to keep children in the classroom.
The move comes as some school districts are once again going virtual in an attempt to avoid the worst of the omicron variant.
The strategy includes a "test to stay" approach: Instead of mandatory quarantines for unvaccinated students identified as close contacts of a Covid-positive peer, those students could remain in school if they test negative for the virus at least twice during the week after an exposure.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also releasing two reports Friday highlighting school districts that have used the "test to stay" approach successfully.
The Biden administration is seeking to head off major disruptions in hospital and school settings as the omicron variant, now gaining a foothold in the U.S., is expected to barrel into the upcoming holiday season. Schools are particularly vulnerable, with just 18 percent of kids ages 5 to 11 with at least one shot, as well as 61 percent of those ages 12 to 17, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
One of the new CDC reports, based on 90 schools in Lake County, Illinois, estimated that a "test to stay" approach prevented more than 8,000 missed school days. The other, from Los Angeles County in California, found schools that declined to use test to stay policies lost about 92,000 school days.
The studies demonstrate that "test to stay" works to keep unvaccinated children in schools safely," CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House Covid task force briefing Friday.
But, she added, other prevention measures were also key to the program's success. "In both studies, masks were worn consistently and correctly. Close contacts of a positive case were monitored for symptoms and stayed home if they became ill."
Some schools are already again closing, as Covid positivity rates once again rise.
The Biden administration is also expected to encourage teachers in particular to get Covid booster shots at school-based vaccine clinics. This approach will be done in partnership with teachers' unions, which is using paid advertisements and town halls to reach school personnel.
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The possibility of keeping children in classrooms after many months of remote learning is appealing to teachers, parents and public health officials alike who have noted how the pandemic has affected kids socially, emotionally and academically.
When schools switched to remote learning in the spring of 2020 in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid, kids began falling behind in their lessons. Many children, isolated at home without their peers, reported increases in stress levels.
"It's clear that the best place for for children is in-school learning, and if it can be done safely for a child who may have been exposed to Covid, then we need to do that," said Dr. Richard Besser, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a former acting CDC director.
The White House strategy would also include other proven methods of reducing viral spread, such as masks, hand-washing and physical distancing of at least 3 feet between students.
As of Dec. 9, more than 7.1 million Covid-19 cases in children had been reported.
CORRECTION (Dec. 17, 12:16 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article incorrectly characterized the CDC study in Lake County, Illinois. It is based on data from 90 schools, not 90 students.