In Hillside and increasingly elsewhere, school kids get tested each week for COVID

The aim is to keep them in class and keep the coronavirus out. So far, parents and guardians of two-thirds of Hillside School students have consented to the saliva testing.

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Amy Muñoz (right), an eighth-grader at Hillside School, submits a saliva sample for analysis for COVID-19.

Amy Muñoz (right), an eighth-grader at Hillside School, submits a saliva sample for analysis for COVID-19. The cost of providing weekly coronavirus testing to all staffers and students is covered partly by federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Christine Herman / WILL via KHN

On a recent Monday morning, a group of preschoolers filed in to the gymnasium at Hillside School.

These 4- and 5-year-olds were the first of more than 200 students at the west suburban school to get tested for the coronavirus that day — and will be every Monday for the foreseeable future.

At the front of the line, a girl in a unicorn headband and sparkly pink skirt clutched a zip bag with her name on it. She pulled out a plastic tube with a small funnel attached. Hillside School District 93 Supt. Kevin Suchinski led the student to a spot marked off with red tape. Suchinski coached her how to carefully release — but not “spit” — about a half teaspoon’s worth of saliva into the tube.

“You wait a second, you build up your saliva,” he told her. “You don’t talk. You think about pizza, hamburgers, French fries, ice cream. And you drop it right in there, OK?”

The results come back within 24 hours. Any students who test positive are instructed to isolate, and the school nurse and administrative staff carry out contact tracing.

Hillside was among the first in Illinois to start regular testing. Now, almost half of Illinois’ two million students in grades kindergarten-12 attend schools rolling out similar programs. The initiative is supported by federal funding channeled through the state health department.

Schools in other states — including Massachusetts, Maryland, New York and Colorado — also offer regular testing; Los Angeles public schools have gone further by making it mandatory.

These measures stand in sharp contrast to the confusion in states where people are still fighting about wearing masks in the classroom and other anti-COVID strategies, places where some schools have experienced outbreaks and even teacher deaths.

Within a few weeks of schools reopening, tens of thousands of students across the United States were sent home to quarantine. It’s a concern because options for K-12 students in quarantine are all over the map — with some schools offering virtual instruction and others providing few or no at-home options.

Hillside School District 93 Supt. Kevin Suchinski: “If we don’t do this program, we could be losing instruction because we’ve had to close down the school.”

Hillside School District 93 Supt. Kevin Suchinski: “If we don’t do this program, we could be losing instruction because we’ve had to close down the school.”

Provided

Suchinski hopes this investment in testing prevents virus detected at Hillside School from spreading into the wider community — and keeps kids learning.

“What we say to ourselves is: If we don’t do this program, we could be losing instruction because we’ve had to close down the school,” the superintendent said.

So far, parents and guardians of two-thirds of all Hillside students have consented to testing. Suchinski said the school is working to get the remaining families on board by educating them about the importance — and benefit — of regular testing.

Every school that can manage it should consider testing students weekly — even twice a week, if possible, said Becky Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, which developed the saliva test that Hillside and other Illinois schools are using. Smith pointed to several studies — including peer-reviewed and preliminary research — that suggest that rigorous testing and contact tracing are key to keeping the virus at bay in K-12 schools.

“If you’re lucky, you can get away without doing testing [if] nobody comes to school with a raging infection and takes their mask off at lunchtime and infects everybody sitting at the table with them,” Smith said. “But relying on luck isn’t what we like to do.”

Julian Hernandez, a Hillside seventh-grader, said he feels safer knowing that classmates infected with the virus will be prevented from spreading it to others.

“One of my friends — he got it a couple months ago while we was in school,” Julian said. “[He] and his brother had to go back home. … They were OK. They only had mild symptoms.”

Brandon Muñoz, who’s in fifth grade, said he’s glad to get tested because he’s too young for the vaccine — and he really doesn’t want to go back to Zoom school.

“Because I wanna really meet more people and friends and just not stay on the computer for too long,” Brandon said.

Suchinski said Hillside also improved ventilation throughout the building, installing a new HVAC system and windows with screens in the cafeteria to bring more fresh air into the building.

Regular testing is an added layer of protection though not the only thing Hillside is relying on. About 90% of Hillside staff are vaccinated, Suchinski said, and students and staffers wear masks.

Setting up a regular mass-testing program inside a K-12 school takes a good amount of coordination, which Suchinski can vouch for.

Last school year, Hillside administrators facilitated the saliva sample collection without outside help. This year, the school tapped funding earmarked for K-12 coronavirus testing to hire COVID testers — who coordinate the collecting, transporting and processing of samples and reporting results.

A couple of Hillside administrators help oversee the process on Mondays and also facilitate testing for staff members as well as more frequent testing for a limited group of students. Athletes and children in band and extracurricular activities get tested twice a week because they face greater risks of exposure to the virus from these activities.

Arizona State University’s Mara Aspinall: “There should be no school — public, private or charter — that can’t access [federal] money for testing.”

Arizona State University’s Mara Aspinall: “There should be no school — public, private or charter — that can’t access [federal] money for testing.”

Arizona State University

Compared with a year ago, coronavirus testing is now more affordable and much less invasive, said Arizona State University’s Mara Aspinall, who studies biomedical testing. There’s also more help to cover costs.

“The Biden administration has allocated $11 billion to different programs for testing,” Aspinall said. “There should be no school — public, private or charter — that can’t access that money for testing.”

Creating a mass testing program from scratch is a big lift. But more than half of all states have announced programs to help schools get the money and handle the logistics.

If every school tested every student once a week, the roughly $11 billion earmarked for testing probably would run out in a couple of months, assuming a cost of $20 to buy and process each test. Put another way, if a quarter of all U.S. schools tested students weekly, the money could last the rest of the school year, Aspinall said.

In its guidance to K-12 schools, updated Aug. 5, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t make a firm recommendation for this surveillance testing.

Instead, the CDC advises schools that choose to offer testing to work with public health officials to determine a suitable approach, given rates of community transmission and other factors.

The agency previously recommended screening at least once a week in all areas experiencing moderate to high levels of community transmission. As of Sept. 21, that included 95% of U.S. counties.

For school leaders looking to explore options, Aspinall suggests a resource she helped write that’s cited in the CDC guidance to schools: the Rockefeller Foundation’s National Testing Action Plan.

Last spring — when Hillside was operating at about half capacity and before the more contagious Delta variant took over — the school identified 13 positive cases among students and staffers through its weekly testing program. The overall positivity rate of about half a percent made some wonder whether all of that testing was necessary.

But Suchinski said that by identifying the 13 positive cases, the school might have avoided more than a dozen potential outbreaks. Some of the positive cases were among people who weren’t showing symptoms but still could have spread the virus.

A couple of weeks into the new year at Hillside, with the school operating at full capacity, Suchinski is balancing optimism with caution.

“It is great to hear kids laughing,” he said. “It’s great to see kids on playgrounds.

“At the same time, we know that we’re still fighting against the Delta variant, and we have to keep our guard up.”

This story is from a partnership of Illinois Public Media, Side Effects Public Media, NPR and KHN, a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues

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