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D161 officials mull COVID-19 saliva testing opportunity to curb outbreaks, quarantines

Flossmoor School District 161 is discussing the possibility of adopting an opt-in saliva test program that could help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within its walls.

Superintendent Dana Smith presented the covidSHIELD saliva test Monday, June 14, during a regular meeting of the district’s board of education. The test, developed by the University of Illinois, has been approved for use in elementary and middle schools, Smith said.

It is a weekly testing protocol available to screen unvaccinated adults and unvaccinated students, which would currently be most of District 161’s student population other than possibly some students at Parker Junior High School. Parents would have to give permission for their children to be screened, but there are benefits to doing so, Smith said.

Among those benefits, according to his report: identification of pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals who can quarantine sooner and reduce spread, the reduction of quarantines for students who might have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 but did not themselves test positive, and an increase to instruction time with less quarantines.

“This would have been great 14 months ago,” Smith said.

The idea, Smith said, is to catch outbreaks before they happen and avoid unnecessarily quarantining students who may be fine to stay in school. He added that he talked to other school leaders who similarly value maximizing instructional time and have used similar testing protocols. He said it was recommended to him, but he understands why timing changes how some view it.

“Perspectives on the testing have, I think, gone all over the place,” Smith said “I think the people who have done it since August think it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to their district. The people who haven’t and have been in school every day since August are asking why they’re going to spend three minutes and 30 seconds per student once or twice per week, every week, when they … have not had large outbreaks.”

A loss of instruction time to complete the tests is the one con Smith listed in his report. 

“The cost is free, since we are a Tier 2 school, “Smith said. “But that is only just one small part of it. … Our cost becomes time. Who is participating in that process?”

While a third party vendor would handle collection, transportation of the samples to a lab and reporting of results within 24 hours through a secure portal, staff would have to manage those tests on-site, Smith said.

Board Vice President Cameron Nelson said the enticement for parents to opt in is that their children might not have to stay home unnecessarily and the district has the ability to identify positive cases sooner. He said he was leaning strongly in favor of the program, in part because the district cannot expect vaccinations to be high among student populations, but he also has concerns about how it could become a full-time job for school nurses and others in each building to facilitate the tests.

“It would really depend on how many families opt into it,” Director of Learning and Instruction Amabel Crawford said of the time commitment.

Nelson added that if there is “significant adoption” of the testing protocol, he would likely be coming back to the board to ask about the possibility of doing away with masks so they can instead focus as much as possible on instruction.

“I want the students’ day to be as normal as possible,” he said.

Board Secretary Christina Vlietstra said she would like to have numbers regarding the accuracy of the tests before they make a decision.

Smith noted the program can cover anyone unvaccinated, all the way down to pre-kindergarten, if that is the board’s wish. Students not taking part in the screening protocol would have to potentially quarantine for 14 days if they were in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case, Smith said.

Flossmoor applies for STEAM grant

Smith noted Flossmoor School District 161 applied for an Illinois State Board of Education STEAM Grant. There is a $1.1 million pool of money to help STEAM access for schools that meet certain eligibility criteria.

Smith said both Flossmoor Hills and Serena Hills elementary schools were eligible. Despite those schools making up roughly 1/1,000th of the eligible schools, they applied for 5% of the money in hopes of expanding STEAM offerings at those two schools, he said.

“I’m hopeful we receive the money, but I’m not confident,” Smith said. “Really, there’s probably 2,050 schools competing for the same $1 million.”

State notification could take three months.

“Until then, we’re not going to spend anything,” he added.

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