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The Rockefeller Foundation is teaming up with COVID-19 testing companies to reopen schools safely

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Mara Aspinall, Rockefeller Foundation Advisor & Arizona State University College of Health Solutions Professor, joins Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous and Reggie Wade to discuss The Rockefeller Foundation’s plans to aid safe school reopenings.

Video Transcript

- The Rockefeller Foundation is working with the nation's leading testing companies to reopen our schools. Mara Aspinall is a Rockefeller Foundation advisor and professor at Arizona State University College of Health Solutions. We're joined by her now, as well as our education reporter, Reggie Wade. Professor, thanks so much for being with us. I know that you're able to do the work you're doing with the Rockefeller Foundation through that $10 billion that the federal government allocated for reopening schools in the latest relief package. Can you tell us how that money is being allocated exactly?

MARA ASPINALL: Sure. I'll start by saying you know, the Biden administration's recent $10 billion allocation from the American Rescue Plan has been absolutely critical to providing a pathway for schools to start screening and testing on a regular basis. What we created is something called the National Testing Action Program, which uses two types of testing technologies, PCR and rapid antigen to really empower school leaders, parents, and teachers to understand the potential of infections for their classroom, which is low. But this gives them confidence.

REGGIE WADE: Professor, Reggie Wade here. One thing that I think sometimes gets lost is the economic impact that having schools shut down due to COVID has on the economy. Could you speak a little bit about that?

MARA ASPINALL: Absolutely. And you're right, Reggie, it is a critical point. Many people hear the word "schools" and they say, I don't have kids in school. And it doesn't matter to me.

I will say, it matters to everyone. Depending on how you look at it, Brookings looked at $2.5 trillion of estimated cost of the US in future earnings because of lost education. That is 13% of the annual GDP. It is huge.

We also have years of life lost because of the school closures. Schools are where kids need to be. And that is where they are educated.

REGGIE WADE: Professor, which districts or states do you think are doing a good job when it comes to testing, not only students, but also teachers and staff for COVID-19?

MARA ASPINALL: Well, it's interesting. I mean, first I will say, it is critical, as you describe it, when testing happens in the school it's not just one segment of the school population. It is every segment of the school population.

It is students. It is teachers. It is staff that work in the school. So the best schools are ones that are doing it on an integrated basis and really make an impact there.

There's no one school system that I can describe. What I can say that they exist throughout the country. New York City has been aggressive in implementing testing. And it has allowed them to go back to school.

Baltimore just started an integrated testing program. Again, once-- at least once a week. Colorado on the west has integrated a system throughout its school system. So there are so many now that have integrated it.

And I think what's been most both exciting and confidence building is that the positive rate in the schools nationwide has been between 0.25 and 0.5, i.e. very, very low. And most of the time, those are asymptomatic people. And as soon as they are isolated before they can go back to school, it means that with testing, we can reduce the likelihood, to as close to 0 as possible of any outbreaks.

We've also found that with testing that has happened in schools that schools are not, as some imagined early on, they are not the source of outbreaks in the community. In many ways, schools are the safest place for kids. And importantly for the economy, it allows the parents to go back to work.

- Professor, what does the supply chain look like for these tests? Because you're talking about needing an awful lot of them if you're going to test and continue to retest children, teachers, and staff? I know for instance, here in New York City where I am, the archdiocese of New York was talking to the public school system saying, hey, we want some-- some of those tests too. And they kept being told, we just simply don't have enough.

So I guess it's a twofold question. Are there enough? And does this $10 billion allocated from the federal government help us pay for those tests?

MARA ASPINALL: So I'll start with the second half. But first, there are enough tests now. And this was critical for us implementing the MCAP guidance and working with the federal government and most importantly, leading test labs and test company suppliers-- manufacturers of antigen tests. So over the last few months, these companies have worked to ensure that there are enough tests.

How has that happened? Twofold. One is the implementation of PCR pool testing. So this is when a classroom might all do a nasal swab and put it in a large container. Happens to be called a Falcon Tube. And with that, they are able to test an entire classroom essentially as one test. That allows us to be most efficient with the use of supplies for tests, as well as laboratory time and personnel.

The second piece is over these last 90 days in particular, there has been tremendous progress with the manufacturing of antigen tests. So you bring that all together and what you say is, there is enough tests for schools. And we expect that probably 60% of schools will take advantage of this program. A number of schools are already in progress and probably won't.

But we do believe that there are enough tests to do that. And the testing manufacturers are-- as part of this program, have committed to ensure that that testing capacity with schools is predictable. So it is there week after week after week. And lastly, that that capacity will not impact the capacity for tests for the rest of the nation. And that is critical. And we are at a perfect time now for the improvements in technology, along with the money make this testing available for everyone.