Dixon Public Schools to implement COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated workers

DIXON – Starting Monday, Dixon Public Schools will be administering weekly COVID-19 rapid tests to employees and other contracted workers who are not fully vaccinated.

District 170 Superintendent Margo Empen explained the rollout of the new program to the district school board during its regular meeting Wednesday evening at the Dixon School District office.

“It’s been a definite learning curve,” Empen said. “I know more about saliva testing than I ever thought I would.”

Because of an order issued Aug. 26 by Gov. JB Pritzker, educators in K-12 schools either must be vaccinated as of Sept. 2 or be subject to weekly screenings.

Board President Linda Wegner commended the administration for “rallying” to get the program implemented quickly. Empen’s early effort to enroll in SHIELD testing meant the district was near the front of the line for receiving the University of Illinois testing protocol, she said.

Katherine Shaw Bethea Hospital is a partner in the program, providing health care workers who will administer the tests. The SHIELD tests are free. Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, also known as the ESSR II program, helps pay for contract service KSB provides.

The tests will be administered at each of the district’s five schools on a different day during the week. The goal is to complete each batch of tests by 7:30 a.m., before the start of the school day.

Samples are taken to Sauk Valley Community College for processing. Results are returned within 24 hours.

In all, about 175 people will need to be tested. Of those, 125 are district employees. The others are outside coaches, food service workers, bus company drivers and substitute teachers.

The testing requirement is for 33% of staff who either are not fully vaccinated, meaning they either have one dose or are still awaiting the efficacy period to kick in after the second dose, or they are entirely unvaccinated, Empen said.

Wednesday morning, two more staff members reported to school nurses they had completed the vaccination process, she said.

The board asked if it was still too late for unvaccinated staff members to receive doses. Empen said it wasn’t. Individuals only need to get shots at all the places available in the community that provide them, either through their local health department or at participating pharmacies, and bring proof to a school nurse to register their status.

One of the early challenges was the initial plan to rely on BinexNow antigen tests, Empen said. Binex rapid tests didn’t meet the compliance requirement for adults in part because they have been and are still approved for testing students. That required a shift to the SHIELD tests, which reads RNA in one’s saliva to detect any trace of COVID-19.

The district was fortunate because Sterling Public Schools already has been a SHIELD site, and Superintendent Tad Everett provided assistance by “making sure all our bases were covered,” she said.

Dixon Public Schools will receive certification for administering SHIELD tests on its own by the end of September, Empen said, but it was her recommendation to maintain the KSB partnership and keep using Sauk for reasons of efficiency. It frees the district’s nursing staff to focus on existing student needs, which she said are considerable.

Troy Taylor

Troy E. Taylor

Was named editor for Saukvalley.com and the Gazette and Telegraph in 2021. An Illinois native, he has been a reporter or editor in daily newspapers since 1989.