Most Illinois schools have not yet started weekly COVID-19 saliva testing despite being several weeks into the school year — a situation that officials blame on the logistics of getting testing off the ground as well as a crush of demand.
In early August, the state health department announced that all public schools in Illinois outside of Chicago — which received its own federal funding — would have access to free, weekly COVID-19 SHIELD Illinois testing to help keep students and staff safe, and to support the continuation of in-person learning. The test, which was developed by the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, requires students to drool into individual tubes, which are then analyzed by SHIELD labs, with most results coming back within 24 hours. The test is able to detect the SARS-CoV-2 and its variants in symptomatic, pre-symptomatic, and asymptomatic individuals, according to the state.
As of Wednesday, 449 public school districts and private K-12 school organizations in Illinois had signed up to implement SHIELD testing. About 79 of them had actually started testing, according to SHIELD Illinois.
It’s a lag that comes as the state endures yet another COVID-19 surge due to the highly contagious delta variant, and as schools report outbreaks. As of Sept. 10, the state health department was reporting 128 outbreaks at schools.
SHIELD leaders say they have plenty of supplies and capacity. But they, and school leaders, say it’s taking time for schools to communicate with parents, get parental permission and then send rosters of participating students to SHIELD.
Further exacerbating the situation, the testing organization was hit with a wave of demand in the month before school started, with hundreds of school districts signing on in late July or August. In late August, Gov. J.B. Pritzker publicly announced that all schoolteachers and staff would be required to get vaccinated or get tested for COVID-19 once a week. That month, the state also detailed an optional new test-to-stay program, in which students and teachers who are close contacts of people with COVID-19 may stay in school so long as they test negative on days 1, 3, 5 and 7 after exposure.
It can now sometimes take days for SHIELD to answer schools’ questions about implementing testing because of the high demand and a limited number of SHIELD staffers, said Ron Watkins, managing director of SHIELD Illinois, which is a nonprofit unit of the University of Illinois system. SHIELD is working to hire more people to help answer schools’ questions in the next few weeks, and upgrading its software to help make the process of getting started more efficient for schools.
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Watkins said of when all interested schools will be able to begin testing. “We’re trying to get that (time frame) down as much as possible from our end.”
Schools also have the option of having certain, designated organizations help them collect and transport saliva samples, rather than do it themselves. If they choose that option, it can now take weeks for them to get started because of the current surge of demand, said Beth Heller, a spokeswoman for SHIELD Illinois. SHIELD is now working to partner with more companies to help.
Some school districts aren’t sure how long they’re willing to wait. At Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214, Director of Administrative Services Chris Uhle said late last week that the six-school district had yet to hear from the SHIELD testing program, and was pursuing other options.
“We submitted our information several weeks ago and are waiting to hear back from them due to high demand,” Uhle said. “In the meantime, we have been sourcing other providers.”
SHIELD Illinois had attempted to set up a meeting with the district, Heller said.
Schools are allowed to use tests other than SHIELD as long as they have emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and proper certification, said Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold. The state also bought BinaxNOW antigen tests for schools, and more than 180 schools are using those tests, primarily for symptomatic students and staff and for the test-to-stay program, she said.
Schools may also use federal funding if they want to pursue other types of testing, she said. Chicago Public Schools are implementing a testing program developed by Thermo Fisher Scientific and Color Health, CPS said in a statement.
“For those choosing to use SHIELD, we are working to get them online as quickly as possible,” Arnold said in an email. “Last April, before the end of the school year, the state began encouraging schools to sign up for SHIELD testing. Unfortunately, many schools have waited until now to sign up.”
Starting in April, about 75% of Illinois public school districts outside of Chicago were eligible for free SHIELD testing, Heller said.
Some schools are confident they’ll be able to start SHIELD testing for students soon.
Noble Schools in Chicago hopes to begin testing students at its 18 schools next week, which would be the charter schools’ third week of class. Noble started testing staff in April, and is now in the process of collecting waivers from parents so student testing can get underway.
It can be a challenge to get the waivers, find testing spaces and make time for the students to get tested, said Noble Chief Operating Officer Michael Madden.
“This is one of those things no school ever did prior to COVID,” he said.
Still, he hopes to move quickly.
“The more testing we do and the more cases we catch early, the fewer students and fewer staff who get sick, the fewer number of students who have to stay home and miss class,” Madden said.
The schools that have started testing say it’s helping them keep more kids healthy and in class.
Lockport Township High School District 205 is now identifying about six to 10 asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 a week among its 1,600 students who are participating in testing, said Superintendent Robert McBride. The two-campus high school district started testing students in its athletic and marching band camps in the summer, and other students during its second week of school in August.
Last spring, before the district began testing, it had to quarantine hundreds of students because they had been in close contact with others who tested positive for COVID-19, he said. By identifying six to 10 students a week with COVID-19 before they’re symptomatic, the district is able to take those students out of circulation before they spend days potentially spreading COVID-19 without knowing it.
“If we could find a way of reducing the amount of students that would be in a quarantine because of close contact to a student who was positive, and if we could reduce the very high workload on school nurses and teachers that comes from a quarantine situation, that was something we wanted to do,” McBride said.
About 2% to 3% of those tested by SHIELD at any given school or organization typically test positive when testing first starts, Watkins said. Usually, after two weeks of repeated testing, that figure drops to well below 1% and stays there because the test is often able to catch people with the illness before they spread it to others, according to SHIELD.
So far, the school districts that have started testing have had varying levels of success getting parental permission. Many schools are asking parents to sign forms opting into testing, while others are telling parents that their kids will be tested unless they sign forms opting them out.
Some parents don’t believe the tests are necessary or think they’re an invasion of privacy. Others worry that if their asymptomatic children test positive they’ll have to pull all their children out of school and miss work.
Elk Grove Village father Tim Burns said if his 9-year-old daughter had COVID-19 symptoms, he’d take her to the doctor immediately. He’s eager to get her vaccinated.
Nevertheless, Burns said he and his wife have not granted their permission for their fourth grader to participate in the Community Consolidated School District 59′s voluntary, weekly SHIELD testing for unvaccinated students.
“I’m not going to add more stress for my daughter by having her take a COVID test when she’s feeling fine and not exhibiting any symptoms, and if it turns out to be a false positive, she has to stay home from school and quarantine for two weeks,” Burns said.
Barrington Unit School District 220, however, has found many parents supportive of the SHIELD testing.
The Barrington district requires parents who don’t want their kids tested to opt-out, and so far, about 1,683 students out of 8,850 have opted out, said spokesman Samantha Ptashkin. The district began testing on Monday at three of the district’s 12 schools.
New Trier High School is only requiring testing for students with no vaccination record on file who are participating in extracurricular activities, with testing optional for all other students, New Trier spokeswoman Niki Dizon said.
“For our student body of nearly 4,000, we have received only 27 opt-outs for SHIELD testing,” Dizon said, adding that, “Some of those opting out are vaccinated, meaning testing is already optional for them.”
Joliet Township High School District 204, which has two main campuses, is testing about 1,300 of its 6,800 students, with mandatory testing for student-athletes and kids participating in certain activities, such as band or choir, said Chris Olson, director of human resources. The district began testing summer school students months ago, and its fall students Sept. 7, which was its fourth week of school.
Sterling Public Schools has 135 students signed up for weekly SHIELD testing out of 3,500, said Assistant Superintendent Sara Dail. The district started testing students and staff in May and has also been offering the testing to community members.
Sterling wanted to offer the option of weekly testing to help more kids stay in school, she said. In the rural Sterling area, many of the other testing options took two to three days to return results, whereas SHIELD results can come back the same day.
“We really wanted to get our students back in class,” Dail said. “The fact that they could test and get a negative result the same day and get back to class was definitely a positive.”
Many parents feel the same way, especially after last school year when so many children spent their days in front of computer screens at home.
Arlington Heights resident Nathan Ulery opted to have his son participate in the Arlington Heights School District 25 SHIELD testing program, along with about 1,450 other students in the district.
His son’s recent 12th birthday celebration included taking the sixth grader to get his COVID-19 shot.
“What works best if we want to keep as many kids in school as possible is masking, vaccines and testing,” Ulery said.