District 181 adds saliva testing program as it resumes full in-person learning this month

By Mike Ellis

In-person gatherings in general have been turned upside down by the
Coronavirus pandemic, and at the heart of the debate concerning safety and efficiency has been the question of the proper attendance model in schools. After spending nearly the entire school year in hybrid learning, Community Consolidated School District 181 targeted a return to full in-person instruction for the first time in more than a year on April 5. Passions have run high on both sides of the debate both during board of education meetings and in online forums, but ultimately, the board determined that it was in the best interest of the students and community to resume full in-person learning for the last two months of the school-year. But with the number of children in school approximately doubling at any given time, the district adopted a voluntary saliva testing program to increase the probability of full in-person success. District communications director Jamie Lavigueur said D181 sought out a non-intrusive test that could be conducted on a weekly basis, and provide results within 24 hours at a cost not to exceed $20 per test. The district settled on Brookfield-based SafeGuard Surveillance LLC, which Lavigueur said satisfied all of the desired parameters.

SafeGuard Surveillance was established by Dr. Ed Campbell, a virologist and associate professor at Loyola University- Chicago, who is also the vice president of the La Grange School District 102 board of education. Campbell derived the saliva test from his friend and colleague Dr. David O’Connor, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who developed the test in the summer of 2020 for the purposes of opening his son’s school. In order to take the test, the subject spits into a vial, and then receives a result within hours. District 102 adopted the saliva screening program prior to the start of the 2020-21 school-year, and was followed weeks later by La Grange School District 105, which formed a partnership with D102 to conduct testing. Both districts commenced with a pilot program, and have continued with saliva screening throughout the year.

Portrait of Loyola researcher Ed Campbell who is researching how viruses spread on the cellular level. (Photo: Lukas Keapproth)

When a D105 board member inquired regarding potential privacy concerns back in September, Campbell replied that all samples are “properly disposed” of once they have been run. Lavigueur said studies have revealed that weekly surveillance programs have “driven down transmission rates in the areas they cover.” “With weekly testing, we will have a more accurate assessment of overall COVID-19 rates and risks at D181 schools, providing an extra layer of reassurance for providing in-person instruction, in addition to the many safety measures our schools already have in place,” she said. Saliva screening is efficacious in proportion to the number of students and staff that participate. District 105 set a target of 80 percent student participation, but did not exceed 75 percent at any point in 2020. While District 181 understands that not every family will desire to participate in the program, Lavigueur said “the more individuals who participate, the more effective it is as a preventative measure.”

Shazia Sultan of Hinsdale, the mother of a seventh-grader at Hinsdale Middle School and a fourth-grader at The Lane Elementary School, said she likes the availability of the saliva screening program. Prior to April, Sultan’s kids had been fully remote the entire year. She said she was “nervous” at first, and was unsure how the district would manage its hybrid model. “I wanted to buy myself time to see how the district handled things,” Sultan said. But in watching events unfold throughout the school-year, Sultan said she was confident in sending her children back for full in-person instruction in April.

“I have no hesitation at this point,” she said. … “The game-plan that I’m seeing the administration roll out is amazing.” Sultan said her niece, a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has enjoyed a pleasant experience on campus this year, with twice weekly testing. “Whatever we can do to have the most confidence in [the kids’] safety, it’s very important to have it,” she said. Sultan likes the fact that the program is voluntary, adding that the pandemic has been a “personal battle” for parents. “If you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to use it, ”she said. … “They need to do what’s best for their children.” Sultan said she disagrees with comments she has observed from parents online opining that there are better ways to spend money. “At the end of the day, a child’s safety is not more or less than something else,” she said.

“I think it’s really wonderful that they have another avenue through which parents can feel more comfortable getting their children back to school.”

Sultan said the board and administration have to do what’s best for the “majority” of families, and can’t cater to every individual opinion that exists within the community. “I think it’s really wonderful that they have another avenue through which parents can feel more comfortable getting their children back to school,” she said. Lavigueur said in-person students and staff have the opportunity to sign up and begin testing at any time throughout the year. “Our goal with this program is to avoid any school closures by identifying asymptomatic individuals, who can still spread the virus to others,” District 181 superintendent Dr. Hector Garcia said. “We encourage all of our students and staff to participate in this quick and easy reassurance of safety that provides another level of protection as we return to full inperson.”■