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Reading and writing — and rapid COVID-19 tests? Pritzker unveils $225 million fall program for middle, high schools

The covidSHIELD saliva testing system that was developed and deployed on campus by experts at the University of Illinois last summer will help ensure a more normal looking school year for younger kids, officials say.

A student demonstrates the covidSHIELD test process. Officials will provide the tests free or at a discounted rate to school districts statewide this fall.
A student demonstrates the covidSHIELD test process. Officials will provide the tests free or at a discounted rate to school districts statewide this fall.
Provided by SHIELD Illinois

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s health team is pumping $225 million into a COVID-19 testing program for students returning to middle and high schools statewide this fall, officials announced Wednesday.

The covidSHIELD saliva testing system that was developed and deployed on campus by experts at the University of Illinois last summer will help ensure a more normal looking school year for younger kids “as quickly and safely as possible,” according to Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike.

“For in-person learning to occur, we need to help make schools as safe as possible for students, teachers, and staff. To help prevent an outbreak, it is important to identify cases of COVID-19 as quickly as possible,” Ezike said in a statement. “Having testing readily available in schools can make it easier for more students to be tested and cases identified quicker. Testing, along with vaccination and masking, will help all of Illinois get back to in-person learning.”

After students drool into a special container, results are returned in 12-24 hours, making it easier to identify potential exposures and reduce the number of people who might need to quarantine.

Tens of thousands of the tests have been processed daily at the U of I since last August, driving down the Urbana-Champaign region’s positivity rate as the lowest in the state — and keeping most classes running uninterrupted.

The covidSHIELD system is already being used at some public universities and colleges. The $225 million being put down by the state will help offer tests free to middle and high school districts “that are predominately low-income and have experienced high rates of COVID-19 infection” as determined by the state Board of Education, officials said. Other districts will have it discounted to $10 per test.

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike speaks at the Cook County’s Forest Park Community Vaccination Site in April.
Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike speaks at the Cook County’s Forest Park Community Vaccination Site in April.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Tim Killeen, president of the U of I system, called it “a welcome commitment from the state of Illinois that will make certain that thousands more of the state’s young people and those who educate them benefit from it.”

Specimens will be collected at schools that opt in to the program. Parental consent is required.

“We are so excited to have students back in classrooms, reconnected with their teachers and their friends,” state Schools Supt. Carmen Ayala said in a statement. “Making testing widely and freely available gives schools another important tool to keep students and educators safe as we move closer and closer to putting the pandemic behind us.”

Chicago Public Schools is opting not to participate in the state testing program.

“The district has an existing testing program in place that prioritizes resources for our highest-need communities,” CPS spokesman James Gherardi said in an email. “Our current strategy has successfully allowed us to return to in-person instruction safely and with confidence.”

Districts that are interested in participating should contact Beth Heller at bheller@uillinois.edu.

Statewide, the average testing positivity rate of 2.7% is at its lowest point since March 25. Officials reported 1,795 new cases were diagnosed among the latest 70,216 tests.

COVID-19 vaccine doses administered by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

Graph not displaying properly? Click here.

The school testing investment comes as kids as young as 12 become eligible to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in Illinois starting Thursday.

With the latest 73,345 shots that went into arms Tuesday, about 57% of residents 16 or older have gotten at least one shot so far, and about 36% of the population are fully vaccinated.

Shot demand has shrunk by more than a third over the past month though, with the state now averaging about 81,000 doses administered per day over the past week.

“The faster that we can all get vaccinated, the more likely this summer will be getting us back to normal,” Pritzker said during a Springfield news conference.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks to reporters at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in downstate Peoria in December.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks to reporters at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in downstate Peoria in December.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Meanwhile, the virus is claiming an average of 27 Illinois lives per day. A Cook County woman in her 30s was among the latest 26 COVID-19 deaths reported by the state.

The death toll is up to 22,285 among almost 1.4 million people who have tested positive in Illinois since last year.

For help finding a vaccination appointment in Chicago, visit zocdoc.com or call (312) 746-4835.

For suburban Cook County sites, visit vaccine.cookcountyil.gov or call (833) 308-1988.

To find providers elsewhere, visit coronavirus.illinois.gov or call (833) 621-1284.