By Bob Skolnik
Students attending school in person in Riverside Elementary School District 96 will soon have the option to be tested weekly for the presence of the coronavirus.
At their Oct. 7 school board meeting, the members of the District 96 Board of Education gave Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye the authorization to partner with LaGrange-Brookfield School District 102 to allow their new laboratory test saliva of District 96 students.
District 102 has been conducting optional weekly saliva tests using a lab set up in the district's science center at Barnsdale Road School in LaGrange Park. The idea for using the salvia test, which is considered a surveillance test and not a diagnostic test, came from District 102 school board member Ed Campbell, a Brookfield resident who is a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Loyola Medical Center in Maywood. Campbell also helped equip the lab.
District 102 board members Jeff Miller and Joel Marhoul recently met with Campbell to find out more about the test.
"I came away feeling very confident that his system is legit," Miller told fellow school board members.
Ryan-Toye said the weekly testing will build confidence that kids can come to school without the risk of spreading the virus and that students who test negative will not have to stay home because of common cold symptoms, such as a runny nose.
Board member Shari Klyber also favored moving forward with a testing program.
"I think this is the responsible thing to do," Klyber said.
The only board member who was not fully in favor of going forward with the program, which is expected to cost the district about $15,000 a week, was board President Dan Hunt.
Hunt said he feared the testing program could lull some families to relax their social distancing and mask wearing if their kids consistently test negative.
"I'm really concerned with the possibility of sowing in the community a false sense of security and having people drop their guard as a result," Hunt said.
Hunt also questioned whether a local school district should be conducting and paying for testing.
"It should not be us doing this, it should be the public health department, or somebody," Hunt said. "It really seems amazing that it falls to us or it falls to local school boards to take action on something like this. It does give me unease. Is this our issue?"
Other board members agreed that larger levels of government should be handling testing but wanted to go forward because this was the only testing option available to District 96 right now.
"We are the smallest form of government trying to fight a national pandemic," said board member Lynda Murphy, who noted District 96 was fortunate it could afford extensive testing while other school districts could not.
"This should be coming from somebody else, but if it's not then we have to take action," Murphy said.
Board member David Barsotti was even more pointed, saying the federal government had not adequately responded to the pandemic. He noted that if the testing goes on for two years, it would cost the district an estimated $1 million.
"Donald Trump and [U.S. Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos, they all failed us on this and this is just absolutely insane," Barsotti said.
Barsotti said that he hoped that the testing would be ultimately offered to District 96 students who are in the 100 percent remote learning option.
"If the capacity is there, I do think we should seriously consider rolling this out to all students," Barsotti said.
Initially, however, only students in the hybrid option and staff members will be offered the test. Those taking a test spit into a vial, which is taken to District 102's lab for be testing. Participation is completely optional.
District 102 Superintendent Kyle Schumacher said his district has conducted more than 8,500 tests since the school year began. Only two found indicated potential positive findings, which were both confirmed by subsequent nasal swab tests. The saliva test is not considered a diagnostic test.
Testing in District 96 will probably start at the beginning of November, Schumacher said. District 102 will hire two new employees to handle the increased testing volume. District 102 will also analyze test results for LaGrange District 105.
District 102 is just trying to recoup the costs of additional tests and not make money on the testing.
"I'm glad that we're able to help these districts do something that we also think has been very positive for our community," Schumacher said.
District 96 will pay $11 per test and District 96 families will not be charged anything to get their student tested. Schumacher said that the district's lab will not have the capacity to help any other districts after taking on Districts 96 and 105.
"At this point we're at capacity," Schumacher said.