COVID-19 testing access a challenge amid Illinois vaccine mandates, say local school, health officials

How are DeKalb County schools doing with the governor’s vaccine mandate?

With just days to go before Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s vaccine mandate for statewide educators comes into play, local school district officials are voicing concerns over testing access since the mandate requires those not yet fully vaccinated by Sunday to submit to required weekly testing.

According to the governor’s mandate, all Illinois educators or anyone working in schools must get vaccinated, or submit to required weekly COVID-19 testing until they do so. The weekly testing goes into effect beginning Monday, after Pritzker extended the vaccination deadline to Sept. 19 at the request of schools.

While local district staff are on their way to fully vaccinated status, meeting test requirements in the meantime won’t be easy, Sycamore Superintendent Steve Wilder said Thursday.

“That was one of the challenging that we identified right away partly,” Wilder said. “You can get a COVID vaccination a lot of different places, it’s very accessible, readily available, no costs. But there are really very few places to get tested and even fewer places to get tested at no cost. I’m glad that we got the extra two weeks and that’s helped a little bit, but still it’s going to put some pressure on us.”

In DeKalb District 428 schools, 887 employees report they are fully vaccinated, district Director of Human Resources Deetra Sallis said Thursday. Sallis said 105 employees report they’re unvaccinated, 22 say they’re not yet fully vaccinated and 318 employees have not reported their vaccination status. The district employs about 1,250 employees, including substitutes and hourly staff, Sallis said.

“We will eventually be using SHIELD testing but like many districts we are not up and running with that yet,” Sallis said, adding that district officials hope to have the final details for the vaccination plan hashed out by the end of the week.

In Sycamore District 427 schools, just over 70% of all staff are fully vaccinated as of Thursday, said Wilder.

“The number or percentage of our staff who are not vaccinated was a little higher than we expected,” Wilder said. “But we’ve been communicating with them about what’s going to be required in terms of meeting the executive order. We’re in a really challenging position because we really don’t have the capacity to provide testing for staff.”

In Genoa-Kingston District 424 schools, that number is 87%, said Superintendent Brent O’Daniell.

“We plan to begin testing those that are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated next week,” O’Daniell said. “We have a plan in place and have enough tests to begin the process. The greatest concern we have right now is the availability of tests in the future, the timeline to set up SHIELD testing, and how long we will be expected to perform this testing.”

Health department’s role

According to DeKalb County Health Department and the mandate, school districts already offer a rapid, nasal swab test option called BinaxNOW, which is meant to be saved for students and staff who are experiencing symptoms while in school, said Lisa Gonzalez, public health administrator with the county health department.

The health department is working with all eight local school districts countywide – DeKalb, Sycamore, Genoa-Kingston, Hiawatha, Hinckley-Big Rock, Shabbona, Sandwich and Somonauk – to distribute BinaxNOW tests, and since July, has distributed about 4,000 tests to local districts, Gonzalez said.

Now that the mandate comes into play, offering an additional weekly test, meant to screen employees who aren’t yet fully vaccinated, will be a challenge, officials said.

“One of our roles in this is to continue to advocate for more availability of testing in the community,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve been doing that from the beginning of the pandemic but we continue to do that, really advocating to get more testing resources, especially with the new mandate and schools being back in session.”

The weekly testing requirements, according to the mandate, are for anyone who has not yet had their second dose of Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or no doses at all, such as with the single-dose Johnson & Johnson. Gonzalez said the state defines “fully vaccinated” as anyone who is two weeks past their second dose or two weeks out from their Johnson & Johnson dose.

That means that for the weekly COVID-19 testing per the mandate, the University of Illinois-created SHIELD tests will be used once available. It’s a non-invasive saliva test, with a turn-around time of about 24 to 36 hours through PCR lab testing, according to SHIELD’s website and resources provided free to Illinois schools through the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Until then, educators will have to seek weekly testing elsewhere if not provided by the schools.

Gonzalez said the health department is not offering COVID-19 testing at this time, except through scheduled offerings such as recently when its mobile health unit set up shop at Northern Illinois University and Kishwaukee College when students returned.

“Outside of that, we’re still focused very much on vaccinations and soon, flu vaccinations,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said it’s also up to local districts as to when they want to conduct weekly testing on employees.

Testing challenges

Local school officials said this week that the problem is that districts might not yet be set up to run SHIELD testing to the capacity needed for unvaccinated staff by next week, or staff who haven’t yet received their second dose of a vaccine.

O’Daniell said that the Genoa-Kingston district was informed there is a high demand for BinaxNOW tests, something Gonzalez corroborated.

SHIELD tests are not yet set up to be able to offer weekly testing to everyone right away.

“There is some truth to that, whether it be the state supply,” Gonzalez said. “What I’m hearing as well is that it is more challenging to get. The SHIELD program at the state is a free resource for all the districts currently. Because there was so much demand all of a sudden, it’s taking a little bit of time to get onboarded.”

In Sycamore, Wilder said he doesn’t expect District 427 to be able to offer SHIELD testing weekly right away.

So what are the choices for educators who can’t get a weekly COVID-19 test at their school building?

Wilder said the Sycamore district has told employees they have a few options:

• They can go to a healthcare provider to get a COVID-19 test and submit the results to the district on a weekly basis, although Wilder said doctor’s offices often require someone to be exhibiting symptoms/

• Physicians Immediate Care in Sycamore accepts walk-ins and will test anyone regardless, although a cost is involved.

• They can go to a free testing site nearby, such as Rockford, which can be ”a bit of a drive,” Wilder said.

Some local pharmacies also offer COVID-19 testing, but many require an appointment, and offer PCR tests, meaning it takes at least a day or more to receive results. For a non-exhaustive full list of testing sites, go to www.dph.illinois.gov/testing.

In Sycamore schools, Wilder said the district will allow employees to submit a home COVID-19 test as long as it falls under the guidelines for molecular COVID-19 tests, which are authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (Authorized antigen tests can be found here and authorized molecular tests here.)

Wilder said Sycamore schools have also fielded “a bit of pushback” from staff related to vaccination requirements.

“Our staff to their credit has been very respectful in voicing their concern with us that not everybody agrees with the mandate,” Wilder said. “We’re really in a position where we don’t have much of choice and I think they’ve been understanding, but [...] they feel like [the mandate] is invasive. We’re hopeful that our staff either provides documentation of vaccination or test results but unfortunately if they don’t we’ll have to exclude them.”

According to the mandate, if an educator does not provide proof of a negative or positive COVID-19 test, or refuses to show proof of vaccination, they will barred access to school buildings.

“Initially it just means that we’re not allowed to allow them to enter the building,” Wilder said when asked if that means disciplinary action or termination could be a result of noncompliance. “So in most cases that means they cant come into the buildings and do their work. They will not able able to use sick days or personal days for that.”

Substitute teachers who will be in school buildings and around children for a substantial amount of time will also be required to provide proof of vaccine or submit to weekly testing, Wilder said, though he added “there’s some grey area,” in the mandate.

“The mandate’s really going to be a challenge for staff in order to get tests done in any of those ways,” Wilder said.


Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke is the editor of the Daily Chronicle, part of Shaw Media and DeKalb County's only daily newspaper devoted to local news, crime and courts, government, business, sports and community coverage. Kelsey also covers breaking news for Shaw Media Local News Network.