Getting the facts straight on covid testing in schools

As we deal with the omicron surge, we are seeing wide variations in the covid testing procedures happening at schools around the state. IDPH began funding the University of Illinois’s SHIELD saliva testing for some schools last spring and expanded it to all schools in August 2021. Last fall additional capacity was added through a federal program. Chicago Public Schools, however, is using other federal covid relief funds to implement testing separately.

Chicago Sun-Times Over 1,200 K-12 schools, with 650K students, to use U. of I.’s rapid COVID-19 tests [Aug 24, 2021]

WIFR 23 IDPH expands COVID-19 testing in schools for K-12 students [Oct 8, 2021]

Some districts, including CPS, have been doing an “opt-in” covid testing program where parents have to sign up to have their child tested. Other districts across the state are doing an opt-out program, meaning parents are notified about the testing and can choose to opt-out if they want, but the default is to participate. Federal guidance on the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment from November 2020 on non-emergency medical screening is that schools can use parental notification plus opt out. 

Opt out generally leads to higher participation than opt in when people are navigating decisions. With the opt-in program at districts like CPS, parents must navigate signing up online, and the CPS rollout of testing last fall was slow and spotty with lots of issues with the vendor administering the test, Color, as reported by the Sun-Times. Before winter break, only about 10% of CPS students were being tested. 

With CTU’s vote to return to remote learning on Tuesday night, which the district responded to by locking teachers out of the district computer system, CTU and CPS are back at the negotiating table and how to administer a testing program for CPS students is a point of contention.

Yesterday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made some comments in the press claiming that schools can’t legally do an opt-out for testing and that she “won’t rob parents of their rights not to have their kids tested for COVID-19,” which she called a “quasi-medical procedure”. In fact, the point of notice plus opt-out testing, rather than a mandate to be tested, is that parents are informed that their child will be tested and they do retain a right to opt out of it. Given the logistics of the current opt-in model haven’t resulted in much parent uptake in CPS, an opt out model seems desirable.

Chicago has just mandated proof of vaccination for anyone age five or above to enter indoor spaces such as restaurants, gyms, and entertainment venues. While there is still no covid vaccine requirement for schools anywhere in Illinois---unlike New Orleans and Los Angeles, though the latter has been delayed until fall--why wouldn’t CPS want to implement testing in a way that maximizes participation at a time when case positivity is 23% and fewer than 22% of students 5-11 in CPS are vaccinated? If districts don’t want to mandate testing because it necessitates providing alternatives to in-person schooling for those who refuse, a policy of opt-out seems the next best thing from a public health perspective.

Despite Mayor Lightfoot’s claims that an opt out procedure would be a legal nightmare, we did some research over the past couple of days and found 34 districts in IL doing notification plus opt-out testing along with at least two CPS charters, CICS Ellison and Horizon Science Academy Belmont. These districts include:

Barrington 220, Bethalto 8, CICS Ellison 299, Crystal Lake/Round Lake CCSD 46, Des Plaines CCSD 62, Evanston 65, Evanston 202, Fenton 100, Flossmoor 161, Georgetown-Ridge Farm CUSD 4, Glenbrook HS 225, Homewood 153, Horizon Science Academy Belmont 299, Huntley 158, Joliet Township 204, Kirby 140, Macomb 185, Naperville 203, New Trier 203, Northbrook 28, Northbrook Glenview 30, Oak Lawn HS 229, Oak Park 97, River Ridge CSD 210, River Trails 26, Riverside 96, Skokie/Morton Grove 69, Speed SEJA 802, Streator 44, Streator Township 40, Thornton 205, West Chicago 33, West Northfield 31, Will Co 92, Woodland 50.

Although the current levels of covid transmission are uncontrolled to the point where test and trace may be unfeasible and availability of testing is again an issue, the public health recommendation is to test anyone in school not fully vaccinated when case rates are more than 10/100K. IL is at 20-30 times that currently with omicron, youth vaccination rates are low, and vaccinated and boosted individuals are still contracting and spreading this variant. 

Omicron won’t be the last variant of covid, nor the last respiratory pandemic schools will face. A policy where the default expectation for attending school in person during an outbreak is being screened for a deadly and highly contagious disease makes sense. 

What’s testing like in your school district right now? Here’s some policy recommendations from last February from the Rockefeller Foundation.

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