NIH funds COVID-19 testing plan to get children back in school

The NIH's projects will combine frequent COVID-19 testing with additional safety measures, to help provide an the examples necessary for additional schools to establish their own screening strategies. (Getty Images)

Over the past year, the National Institutes of Health has led “Shark Tank”-style competitions and funded radical approaches to help develop COVID-19 testing into a more seamless, ubiquitous part of daily life.

Now, the NIH is looking to steer those efforts, plus new government money, toward making it safer to return to classrooms, starting in school districts with the most vulnerable children.

It’s beginning with $33 million in awards to 10 institutions across the U.S. over the next two years to help restart in-person learning while regularly screening students, teachers and staff.

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Using funding from the government’s most recent COVID package, the American Rescue Plan, the grants will be made through the NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative, and its program focused on underserved populations.

“Many children have inequitable access to reliable virtual learning, and it is important they are able to participate safely in person while also maintaining the health and safety of the of the school and general communities,” said Eliseo Pérez-Stable, director of NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and co-chair of the program. 

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The NIH's projects will combine frequent COVID-19 testing with additional safety measures to help set an example for other schools to establish their own screening strategies, Pérez-Stable said in a statement.

While many schools are currently offering both in-person and virtual learning options, some students may lack computer equipment, high-speed internet access or assistance at home. At the same time, many children may go without school-provided meals, speech or occupational therapy and after-school programs. This has disproportionately affected minorities, socially and economically disadvantaged children, and children with medical conditions or developmental disabilities, the NIH said.

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Managed by the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the program selected public and chartered schools spanning early childhood through kindergarten to 12th grade, with attendances ranging from 50 to 3,500 children. This includes schools in urban, rural and tribal communities with racially and ethnically diverse populations, and districts with at least half of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

The projects will include at-home testing, as well as pooled, in-school screening approaches, employing molecular and rapid antigen tests using nasal swabs or saliva. The program also plans to make additional awards in the coming months to expand the initiative to more locations, depending upon the availability of funds.