District 99 to start COVID-19 saliva testing in mid-February

School board also approves vaccination program proposal

DOWNERS GROVE – Community High School District 99 will start COVID-19 saliva-based surveillance testing in mid-February, a program mandatory for all students participating in in-person learning.

The district’s school board on Monday unanimously approved a contract with Safeguard Surveillance LLC, which has also provided the testing for schools in La Grange, Glen Ellyn, Wheaton and other districts. The testing, done weekly, aims to identify potential asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 in the school population early to reduce transmission and drive down overall rates in the community.

The school board also approved the recommendation to enter an agreement with a third-party vendor to administer a COVID-19 vaccination program.

“The saliva testing will not replace any measures put in place already, but rather complement them,” Assistant Superintendent for Student Learning Gina Ziccardi said. “We’ll still need to practice social distancing and wear masks. This is another factor that will help with potential transmission.”

The testing 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 and District 102 board member, to drive down transmission rates and identify asymptomatic students.

With the test, done at home, participants open the top of a collection tube, put the straw on the tube and spit through the straw a few times, then return the sample in the small bag. Results are provided by the lab within 24 hours. The test is non-diagnostic, and those that come with a “significant viral finding” will quarantine and obtain a diagnostic COVID-19 RT-PCR test. The significant viral finding would be treated as a positive test result by the district for purposes of isolation, quarantine and contact tracing.

The tentative timeline is for students and staff consent forms to be sent out this week and a pilot screening with administration done to make sure the process is working. Next week, student screening packets and materials, including the vials, straws and envelopes, will be put together, with packets distributed to students the week of Feb. 8. Testing for students and staff would begin the week of Feb. 15.

“Other school districts are noticing trends that the amount of responses they’re getting with a high viral load is very low; part of that is people self-exclusion themselves,” Superintendent Hank Thiele said. “Schools are finding [the testing] is creating a safer environment. People not feeling well don’t come to school, don’t want to test positive.”

Ziccardi said that Safeguard Surveillance is committed to testing 800 to 1,000 samples a day, with the plan for students in in-person learning to be tested weekly.

The cost is $11 per sample, free to those taking the test, with the estimated cost to the district to do screenings through the end of the school year between $500,000 and $600,000. The district plans to use grant funds to cover the cost, and the estimated $50,000 cost to administer vaccinations.

Thiele said that the district has about $1 million in additional federal funding coming to help offset COVID-19 testing costs and related costs for vaccinations. He’s also been led to believe that another round of school funding directly tailored to help schools increase testing could be coming, although “that is wishful thinking at this point.”

“I know it’s a big expensive item to put out there,” Thiele said. “It’s rare that I would be asking for anything like this to the board in this time frame, but that’s the world we’re living in and the speed we’re working at.”

Thiele said that the district is chasing down several leads between health wellness companies and pharmacies to put together a vaccination program. He expects to be able to finalize an agreement with a provider within the next week to help the district administer a vaccination program. Thiele said the district estimates that it would like to vaccinate approximately 1,100 employees and between 3,300 and 3,500 others in affiliated school district/government partners over a two-week period.

Thiele said that DuPage County has turned it over to school superintendents to determine their own specific vaccination plans. The district does not yet have a timetable on when vaccinations would begin.

“This agreement will allow us to be the most nimble going forward over the next seven to 10 days to get this up and running,” Thiele said. “We administratively have a plan together to make this work at our sites. We just need to find the partner to come in and give the injections of the vaccine.”

Students in the district were in school in-person last week in the hybrid model, and will be again this week after Tuesday’s fully remote snow day. Thiele reported that the test positivity rate within the district continues to go down, and dropped to 6.5% as of Monday.

“We’ve been able to follow all safety measures, we’re keeping up with tracking of all illness and following close contacts,” Thiele said. “That’s gone well, transportation has gone well and we look forward to getting back to school Wednesday.”

Joshua  Welge

Joshua Welge

I am the Sports Editor for Kendall County Newspapers, the Kane County Chronicle and Suburban Life Media, covering primarily sports in Kendall, Kane, DuPage and western Cook counties. I've been covering high school sports for 24 years. I also assist with our news coverage.