Some Illinois school districts to ditch COVID-19 tests this fall: ‘The demand really wasn’t there’

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Despite the urging of the state’s health department to resume school-based COVID-19 testing for students this fall, officials at several Illinois districts said this week they are halting the program due to waning interest from parents and the availability of home tests.

“We’ve decided not to offer SHIELD testing as we start the new school year, but we’re always cautious, and will be ready to pivot back to that partnership if things change,” said Mary Gorr, superintendent of Mount Prospect School District 57.

The SHIELD Illinois program offers K-12 students weekly PCR saliva screenings they can opt into with the permission of a parent or guardian. Gorr said while the free testing was not a financial burden, “it disrupted learning time and was a lot for our nurses and front office staff.”

Another group who may have found the weekly screenings disruptive: parents making quick arrangements for their children to stay home from school if they tested positive on a routine screening, even if they weren’t sick.

“We feel like we’re turning a corner now, with all of the availability of testing and vaccines, and we hope our schools can return fully to institutes for learning,” Gorr said. “The demand from parents for school testing started dwindling last year, and now, it really isn’t there.”

The Illinois Department of Public Health announced in June it renewed an agreement with SHIELD offering every public school outside of Chicago as well as the state’s private schools the opportunity to use the University of Illinois’ saliva-based testing platform at no cost for the 2022-23 school year. Chicago Public Schools has a separate testing program.

School districts were asked to sign up by July 15 in order to guarantee testing on the first day of school.

Around 180 of the roughly 850 public school districts in Illinois have signed up for SHIELD testing so far, and given the program’s rolling enrollment, that number is expected to increase during the coming weeks, said Beth Heller, a spokeswoman for SHIELD Illinois.

Last year, 258 public school districts signed up for the program, with testing conducted at about 1,700 public and private school buildings, Heller said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Friday, “Protecting access to in-person learning is the state’s top priority.”

“That’s why IDPH and ISBE (the Illinois State Board of Education) have worked diligently to ensure school districts have access to free resources, like tests, to control the spread of coronavirus,” spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement.

In addition to SHIELD testing, “The state will also make one million rapid tests available to schools,” Abudayyeh said.

In 2021-22, through various federal funds, $136 million from the IDPH plus roughly $10 million from Chicago Department of Public Health was used on around 6 million tests in K-12 schools, community colleges, universities and community-based sites in Illinois, Heller said.

The cost of the program for 2022-23 “is unknown, but expected to be much less,” Heller said.

The program covers the cost of testing supplies, support for collection and transportation of samples, and lab work. But schools producing fewer than 50 samples on a given day must collect and deliver the samples for analysis themselves, though they are reimbursed $8 for each test they collect and transport, according to Heller.

“Over the past year plus, SHIELD Illinois has worked to reduce as many barriers as possible to make this manageable for schools,” Heller said. “We know how challenging their roles are and COVID is not their only concern.”

One way SHIELD is trying to make the initiative more accessible is to give schools choices on how they want to run their programs, including selecting an option for unobserved testing, where students collect their saliva samples at home.

“They do have to consider their own community and bandwidth as they decide what to do and once they select testing as a way to keep their community safe from COVID, SHIELD will help them with that process,” Heller said.

Chicago Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, does not use SHIELD testing but hired a private company through a request for proposals last year, and will be requesting reimbursement of their costs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, CPS spokeswoman Sylvia Barragan said.

Last year, nearly 94,000 of 270,432 students, or about 35%, participated in the school-based testing program, Barragan said.

A separate testing agreement with the Chicago Department of Public Health covers testing in non-CPS schools in Chicago, including private, parochial and charter schools, IDPH officials said.

While several large suburban districts, including Naperville Community Unit School District 203 and Evanston/Skokie Community Consolidated School District 65, plan to resume their SHIELD testing programs, others are opting out.

“As of now, we are not planning on using the SHIELD saliva screening,” Arlington Heights School District 25 spokesman Adam Harris said. “Testing is now widely available throughout the community as well as with at-home test kits.”

In addition to the availability of other testing options, Barrington Community Unit School District 220 Superintendent Robert Hunt cited the impact on staff and the disruption to the school day as reasons for discontinuing the program.

Community Consolidated School District 62 in Des Plaines, which used the program last year, does not plan to conduct mass testing again in the fall but still signed its contract with SHIELD this week, Superintendent Michael Amadei said.

“We have one school that already started on July 11, and which we’ve been closely monitoring, and their COVID cases are very low,” Amadei said. “But we want to be proactive, and not lose our free testing. The idea is it’s better to be safe than sorry, and we don’t want to miss out on having testing available in case we need it.”

A spokeswoman for Elgin-based School District U-46 said the district has paused their plans to participate in the SHIELD program this fall so officials have the chance “to explore all of our options.”

Wilmette Public Schools District 39 is pausing SHIELD testing so officials can see what conditions are like in the community, but has “left our lines of communication open,” said Tony DeMonte, the district’s administrator for technology and safety.

“Part of our decision to not offer testing when schools reopen is we’re hoping to present a school environment for students that is as normal as possible,” DeMonte said. “And with the availability of testing and vaccines, we’re not in the same boat we were in earlier in the pandemic.”

While it is too early to predict the impact of the virus once schools reopen, Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of Northwestern University’s Institute for Global Health and a professor of infectious diseases at the Feinberg School of Medicine, said the easing of virus mitigation requirements statewide in recent months is already having consequences for public health.

“Nobody should be surprised when cases are up, hospitalizations are up and deaths are up,” Murphy said.

“I think everyone has COVID burnout, but COVID is not burned out,” he said. “Everyone is tired of it, but you can’t let your guard down in the middle of a pandemic.”

Officials who are resuming SHIELD testing say given the surge of the highly contagious BA.5 variant — as of Friday, all six counties covering the Chicago area reported high community levels — it is important for school districts to remain vigilant.

“The great thing about SHIELD is it catches the virus even before a student shows symptoms, which means we can immediately take them out of circulation so they don’t infect anyone else,” said Robert Machak, superintendent of Woodland School District 50 in suburban Lake County.

Last year, the district handled an average of 3,000 tests per week, collecting a total of 90,000 samples during the 2021-22 school year, Machak said. Of those, 2,000 came back positive.

Machak said the pre-K-8 school district tested more than half of its roughly 4,800 students once a week and “honored the requests of the parents who decided to opt out.”

“We found almost 2,000 cases, around 2% of the tests, and those 2,000 people did not have symptoms, so screening allowed us to find them and keep them out of school while they were in quarantine,” he said.

“SHIELD has been a game changer for us, and has helped us keep everyone healthy,” Machak said. “We’re all looking at the greater good, and it’s wonderful to see the community pulling together.”

While those who agree to have their children participate in SHIELD programs say they appreciate the convenience of free, school-based screenings, others, including Deerfield parent Michelle Hammer, say as students begin their fourth year of school during a pandemic, “it’s time to move on.”

“It will perpetuate unnecessary anxiety for students to start testing them again,” said Hammer, whose 16-year-old daughter is a junior at Deerfield High School, which is resuming SHIELD testing later this month.

Hammer said school-based COVID-19 testing is disruptive and leads to unnecessary absences.

“We’re not testing for the cold, flu or strep ... Why is this being dragged on?” she asked. “We need to go back to the days of when if your kids don’t feel good, they stay home from school. It’s just common sense.”

Still, for parents with children who are at risk of serious illness if they are infected with COVID-19, the state’s lifting of mandatory indoor masking and easing of other virus mitigation tools makes SHIELD screenings a valuable safeguard.

“I really felt like SHIELD testing was a win-win, because it’s not an extra expense for the school district, and the goal is to keep our kids healthy and in school by preventing outbreaks,” said Alexis Hammond, a mother of two children enrolled in Arlington Heights School District 25, one of whom, Carter, 8, was diagnosed with a serious medical condition.

Last year, Carter qualified for District 25′s home-based instruction, and was provided with a tutor five hours a week. But after improvements in Carter’s medical condition in recent months, Hammond said her son is excited to meet his new classmates at Patton Elementary School later this month.

“Our family is still choosing to mask indoors, but a lot of families are not, so I hope no one bullies them,” Hammond said.

“The bottom line is, we’re not all looking at the public health guidance, which is there to protect everyone in the community, especially kids like Carter,” Hammond said.