Courtesy of University of Illinois

If you have a student attending a school in Riverside Elementary District 96 for the upcoming year, you will need to actively opt your child out of weekly COVID-19 testing, the school board has decided.

For the 2021-22 school year, unvaccinated staff and students will automatically be subject to weekly onsite testing using the salvia-based rapid Shield test developed by the University of Illinois, which is being offered to school districts in the state at no cost.

The new program replaces the saliva testing program developed by LaGrange-Brookfield School District 102, which Riverside schools joined last fall as a way to catch students infected by the novel coronavirus who were participating in the District 96’s hybrid learning model.

In addition to being free, the Shield test differs from the District 102 test in that it is considered diagnostic, meaning the district will no longer recommend that the student get a diagnostic PCR test elsewhere. Exact student quarantine protocols are still being worked out.

Shield will handle all aspects of the testing, from the logistics to collecting the samples. There is no cost at all for the school district to participate in the program. For now the testing is anticipated to be weekly, though there is a twice-weekly option, said Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye, if case rates escalate.

The school district is also looking to obtain BinaxNOW quick tests, likely to do rapid testing for anyone considered a close contact. The protocols for their use are still being worked out by the Illinois Department of Public Health, Ryan-Toye said.

Testing is not mandatory, but anyone who does not wish to participate in the program must formally opt out, school board members decided at a special meeting on Aug. 4 at Ames School in Riverside.

Ryan-Toye said the district would communicate often to parents the need to opt out of testing in the run-up to the start of classes later this month.

“If you want to do the opt-out, [I] just [want] to make sure we have very layered, heavy communication to parents,” Ryan-Toye said. “If we were sending that frequently, regularly, sending it in multiple languages, etc. It’s certainly doable and it’s not something our legal counsel opposes.”

The decision to go with an opt-out model was not a unanimous one. School board President Dan Hunt indicated he was uncomfortable with it, as were school board members Lynda Murphy and Stephanie Gunn. Ryan-Toye also said the school district’s legal counsel preferred an opt-in model, though they recognized the opt-out model as an option.

“We have to be mindful of folks’ rights, we have to be mindful of subjecting the district to liability,” Hunt said.

Board member David Barsotti noted that the school district already calls for parents to opt their students out of other things, such as having their names published in school directories or allowing their children to be photographed in schools, so there’s a precedent for it. There was also the larger public health aspect to take into consideration, Barsotti said.

Going for the opt-out option might also drive up participation rates, giving the school district better data, and according to board member Wesley Muirheid would also limit paperwork, since participation in the weekly saliva screening is expected to be high, as it was during the 2020-21 school year.

There will also be more students, who with the exception of some middle schoolers will not be unvaccinated, in the school buildings all day, a far cry from the limited capacity, limited classroom time of last year’s hybrid experience.

“This year is certainly different because we will be in school all day, the whole time,” said school board member Joel Marhoul. “We are looking at many more students in the building at the same time, and so therefore there’s greater possibilities for contact.”

The school district will not require families to provide daily health screenings of their students via the Raptor app as they did last year. The school district will instead have parents sign off on a form where they pledge to keep students who are showing any symptoms home from school.

“People know not to come to work or to send their child to school when they’re sick,” Ryan-Toye said. “As we start the school year, we’re asking for a one-time signoff that they won’t do that.”

The school district also won’t be asking families to have their children go home for lunch as they did last year. While individual school principals are still working out exactly how food will be served and lunchtime seating arrangements – kids will utilize any number of larger spaces within their schools to have lunch, from multipurpose rooms to gyms to libraries – they’re welcome to stay on campus the whole day.

“We really twisted arms last year to have children go home for lunch,” Ryan-Toye said. “Kids can stay for lunch.”