WHEATON – Middle and high school students in Community Unit District 200 returned to school today in a hybrid model of in-person and remote instruction after the district and Glenbard Township High School District 87 last week both rolled out a COVID-19 saliva-based surveillance testing program.
They joined a number of suburban school districts in Glen Ellyn, La Grange, Naperville and beyond in instituting a program designed to bring students back to school for in-person learning and keep students in school safely.
District 200 approved its contract with Safeguard Surveillance LLC at a special board meeting Dec. 15. The first round of surveillance testing, which is voluntary for students and staff who choose to opt in, took place Jan. 6.
The testing, done once a week, is designed to identify potential cases of COVID-19 in the school population early, reducing transmission, with the hope to drive down overall rates in the community by alerting those who may need to quarantine before they show symptoms.
District 200 processed 2,233 tests last week and had one staff member and one student referred to get a diagnostic RT-PCR COVID-19 test as confirmation.
Grades 6-12, which was in remote learning for six weeks before Monday, had 82% of middle school students participate in some form of in-person learning during the first semester, and 63% of high school students.
“Testing is recognized as a positive strategy to know the health of students and staff walking in the building,” District 200 Superintendent Jeff Schuler said. “When you look at other activities, testing is typically part of the discussion – sports, pro and college, even national discussions – there is a growing reference to and reliance on testing as a mitigation strategy. It gives us that comfort.”
District 200 staff over winter break put together the test kits, which include small test tubes with a unique barcode sticker, a straw, plastic bags and instructions for collecting saliva samples at home.
The district did a drive-through Jan. 6 where participating families picked up their testing kit and later dropped off their samples.
The district created a YouTube video with instructions on how to collect the saliva samples at home.
Participants open the top of the tube labeled with a bar code, put the straw on the tube and spit through the straw a few times, then return the sample in the small bag.
The district receives results from the lab within 24 hours. When a result comes back with a finding of “clinical significance,” or a high viral load, the school nurse will reach out to the family and advise them to quarantine and obtain a diagnostic COVID-19 RT-PCR test.
The test has been found to be extremely accurate, with Safeguard Surveillance reporting a false positive rate of less than .01% since it was first implemented in late August at LaGrange Elementary School District 102 under the guidance of Edward Campbell, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Loyola University Medical Center who is also a District 102 board member.
All student information remains anonymous, with the lab only receiving a barcoded label and all testing kits destroyed immediately after use.
Individuals picking up kits last week received their first three weeks’ worth of bar-coded vials, and will drop off their follow-up rounds of tests based on the days that they are in school for in-person instruction. Once the districts gets to the end of the third week of testing they will redistribute for the next three weeks.
Schuler said that close to 55% of students and staff in district middle and high schools participated in the first round of testing.
“I would anticipate as we move forward that that percentage will increase,” Schuler said. “A lot of districts who I talked to that did it as an opt in as we did, their first round was around 60%. I was not surprised where we were in the first round.”
The test is free to students and staff, with the district picking up the cost estimated at $11 per sample. Schuler anticipated spending about $145,000 per month on testing and expects to test for at least two months.
“When we set our budget, our board put in a place a contingency, knowing that we may have expenses come up during the year related to COVID whether that’s additional staff or health services,” Schuler said.
The decision to only conduct the surveillance testing program for middle and high schoolers, but not at the elementary school level, is based on the varying in-person instructional models.
“Our elementary model, we have kids coming in and going to one classroom, staying with a static cohort and teacher and leaving the building, and they are not here for the lunch hour,” Schuler said. “With grades 6-12, they’re here for a full day, they travel class to class, eating lunch inside. It is a more complex instructional model that carries additional risk for exposure with kids moving around. The added mitigation gives us greater comfort with the reality of the model. We want that hybrid model to continue. We want to provide continuity and this gives us a comfort to withstand that fluctuation of community transmission numbers.”
Source: The Daily Chronicle