Illinois Rep. Mike Zalewski in his Riverside office in the Arcade Building. (File)

In March, LaGrange-Brookfield School District 102 submitted a request to the state of Illinois for reimbursement for saliva testing costs under the federal program to reimburse school districts for expenditures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

That request was denied because, at that time, state policy was to only reimburse school districts using a University of Illinois-developed test.

But after an investigative story by the online news site Patch and a heads up from Riverside Elementary School District 96 school board member Wesley Muirheid, state Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) got to work. 

Zalewski introduced a bill that persuaded state officials to reimburse school districts using the test used by District 102 and District 96. That test is the one used by the company SafeGuard Surveillance, which was co-founded by District 102 school board member and Brookfield resident Ed Campbell, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Loyola University Medical Center, SafeGuard has contracted to do saliva testing for suburban school districts including New Trier District 203, Glenbard District 87 and others.

The change will save District 102 more than $300,000 and District 96, which contracts with District 102 for saliva testing to detect the presence of the coronavirus, at least $100,000. 

Through March, District 102 had spent $262,000, while District 96 had paid $81,654 for testing done from December through March.

District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye said she had read the Patch story by Mark Konkol outlining how state officials were monitoring Campbell’s company, SafeGuard Surveillance, and attempting to steer Illinois school districts away from it and toward Shield Illinois, a for-profit company developed at the University of Illinois. 

Ryan-Toye forwarded the story and her concerns about whether District 96 would be reimbursed for costs of the saliva testing it was doing to District 96 school board members in a weekly update. 

Muirheid, who is a friend of Zalewski’s and a fellow Ames School parent, shot off a text message to Zalewski about the issue. Zalewski spoke with Ryan-Toye and Campbell about the issue and with a few fellow suburban lawmakers. 

After Zalewski introduced a bill mandating that the state allow reimbursement for the kind of testing SafeGuard Surveillance was doing, state officials met with Zalewski and agreed to approve federal reimbursement for both types of saliva testing.

“I’m extremely grateful to Mike,” Campbell said. “He was really great. He reached out to me. He had a lot of good questions. And he really started an effort downstate with a number of other local representatives to make sure that the schools that are using this kind of surveillance got reimbursed. I think it’s a great example of how local government can matter.”

Campbell’s for-profit company, SafeGuard Surveillance, does not do the testing for Districts 102 and 96, but Campbell personally set up the District 102 testing lab and the lab uses the same surveillance test SafeGuard uses. 

It’s not a diagnostic test and those who test positive are urged to get a diagnostic test; however, the surveillance testing has proved to very accurate.

State officials had raised concerns that SafeGuard’s lab on Ogden Avenue in Brookfield was not certified by the federal Food and Drug Administration. Safeguard eventually applied for and received that certification although the District 102 lab, located in the basement of Barnsdale Road School in LaGrange Park, is still not certified.

Zalewski said that after he and other legislators met with officials from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education, they agreed to change their policy and allow federal money to reimburse districts using the surveillance testing. That agreement was memorialized in two memorandums of understanding and Zalewski withdrew his bill.

The issue was personal for Zalewski, who has four children who attend Ames School in Riverside and have been participating in the weekly saliva testing.

The controversy over SafeGuard Surveillance and its test has also generated stories in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune.

Campbell said the concerns over certification didn’t cause any of Safeguard’s existing customers to cancel their contracts, although they were worried that they might not be reimbursed for the cost of the testing.

“It didn’t affect any of our clients’ decision to keep testing; everyone kept testing throughout this,” Campbell said. “We really haven’t lost any of our clients since the drama began in late March, but certainly there was a realization that the [former] policy left local taxpayers on the hook for something that everyone felt should have reimbursed by the state.”