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As Biden calls for school COVID testing, Illinois program reaches nearly half its schools

A young girl produces a saliva sample for a SHIELD COVID test inside of a large gymnasium.
Nearly half of Illinois schools have access to free, saliva coronavirus testing from the University of Illinois’ SHIELD program.
Courtesy of University of Illinois System

As President Joe Biden called on schools Thursday to roll out regular COVID-19 testing programs for students and staff, Illinois released new numbers that showed 45% of the state’s schools have signed up for a free coronavirus testing program.

The test is developed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and called SHIELD Illinois.

As of Thursday, 1,732 K-12 schools across the state are offering free COVID-19 saliva tests through the Illinois program — sufficient for 112,958 staff members and 877,720 students. The state has 3,859 schools and more than two million students.

Those numbers don’t include Chicago Public Schools. A spokeswoman for the district said the state’s largest school district did not qualify to get the program for free since it separately received federal funding for testing. Chicago, which has said it needs until Sept. 15 to roll out a weekly testing program to students and staff, has publicly reported spending $823,000 on tests and another $500,000 on logistics and management of a program through a Massachusetts-based vendor.

The plan released by the White House Thursday said frequent testing will help schools “better be able to remain open for in-person learning and maintain the health and safety of all students, staff, and families.”

Biden also called on states to require school staff to get vaccinated; Illinois implemented a vaccination mandate for teachers in August. Last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker extended the date from Sept. 5 to Sept. 19 for school employees to receive a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

COVID testing in schools can help catch infections early and lower the risk of in-school transmission by keeping infected individuals out of schools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Testing can also help families feel more secure about sending their children to school in person.

But the federal government’s authority is limited, and presently school district testing policies vary widely. In a survey of policies among the 100 largest school districts, nearly half said they did not regularly test staff or students. Others, though, reported frequent testing of both.

Last week, an executive order from Pritzker gave schools leeway to mandate testing requirements. The state is using money from the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan to fund the testing program at no cost to schools.

The SHIELD Illinois test created by the University of Illinois gives school districts the ability to test students for coronavirus at school sites. Those who are being tested have to provide a sample of saliva, which is sent to one of seven SHIELD Labs. Results are supposed to come back in less than 24 hours.

Beth Heller, senior director of external relations at SHIELD Illinois, said that scaling the programming across the state is possible because most of the process is online. “It really is the school taking responsibility to get tasks done.”

“We are here to provide another mitigation layer,” said Heller. “I’m extremely proud of our state, I’m proud of IDPH for utilizing this funding to help school districts, and I’m just proud of the university for having the vision to create this infrastructure.”

Still, implementing school testing programs in large districts has proved challenging. In New York City, schools plan to test 10% of unvaccinated students every other week. After a limited voluntary surveillance testing program for school employees last school year, Chicago initially said it planned to offer tests in schools in areas of the city with the highest positivity rates. Then interim CEO José Torres broadened that pledge, saying tests would be available widely to students and staff by the first week of school on Aug. 30.

However, by the fourth day of classes last week, the district said it needed until Sept. 15 to figure out logistics, prompting criticism from the union and some parents that the district wasn’t delivering on promised safety precautions.

In a bargaining update Thursday, Chicago teachers union officials said the district had given them evidence so far of testing in 14 schools. Chicago did not confirm that number by publication time or provide data about how many families had so far opted into the voluntary COVID testing program. Chicago has more than 640 schools and the district directly oversees about 500.

“We need a commitment to a robust COVID testing program,” said Chicago teachers union President Jesse Sharkey. “CPS told us ... that it offered testing this week at 14 schools, which is not nearly enough to identify potential outbreaks before they take hold.”

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