By Bob Skolnik
The vast majority of students who attend classes in person in LaGrange-Brookfield Elementary School District 102, which includes the southwestern portion of Brookfield, are spitting into a vial once a week to have their saliva tested for the presence of the novel coronavirus.
And, at least one other local district, Riverside Elementary School District 96, is considering having a new District 102 lab test its students, too.
The idea for the testing regimen came from District 102 board member Ed Campbell, a Brookfield resident who is a professor of microbiology and immunology at Loyola University Medical Center.
During a Zoom meeting in early August, Campbell learned of a colleague who works the University of Wisconsin who helped his child's school district open this fall by developing a nucleic acid test, which uses saliva to screen for the presence of the virus.
Campbell went to Madison to learn more about the test and liked what he saw.
He persuaded his fellow school board members to invest $160,000 in an eight-week pilot project and quickly put together a lab in the district's science lab in the basement of Barnsdale Road School in LaGrange Park. A couple employees were hired to run the lab and conduct the tests.
"Because I do this kind of thing for a living, I was able to put the resources in the Science Center that we needed, either through ordering them or begging, borrowing at Loyola and get it working," Campbell said. "We were running tests two weeks after we went up to Madison."
Participation in the testing is voluntary. Students and staff in District 102 sign up for the program and submit saliva samples, which are analyzed in the lab, once a week. So far, more than 1,600 students and faculty have signed up to get tested weekly.
"And it keeps going up, because before we have more and more people turning in consent forms," said District 102 Superintendent Kyle Schumacher.
The lab has a quick turnaround, yielding results just a few hours after the saliva samples are received at the lab.
"No one has gone to school the next day so far where we haven't run the sample they provided yesterday," Campbell said.
The test is not considered a true COVID-19 diagnostic test and is not approved as such by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but it is sensitive to identify those who are likely carrying the virus in sufficient quantity to infect others. It is not as sensitive as the kind of COVID test, called at PCR test, which involves taking a nasal swab.
"We're looking for those people who have very high viral loads, the so-called superspreaders, which can be asymptomatic," Campbell said. "It's a very low-cost test and it allows for the kind of surveillance screening we wanted to do in 102."
If the test yields a positive result, as it did for one District 102 student or employee, then that person is told to get the nasal swab test.
"Because we are doing a non-diagnostic test, we can simply inform participants of a finding of potential clinical significance and then refer them to a physician for a diagnostic test," Campbell said. "We cannot diagnose a person as being positive for COVID-19, we can just say there's a finding of potential significance."
Campbell said the test has proven very reliable and has not yielded a single false positive in District 102.
"I know that when there have been rare instances where people have provided samples where I know somebody did infect other people, we've picked up them up every time," Campbell said. "That was not necessarily occurring within the district, but households that came forward to provide samples."
Schumacher has informally approached other area superintendents about testing their students. Any district joining in and using the District 102 lab would be charged $11 per test to cover increased costs.
So far District 96 and LaGrange District 105 have shown the most interest.
The District 96 Board of Education discussed the idea at last week's board meeting. Most board members were interested in finding out more about it, although there was concern expressed about the cost, which was estimated to be about $15,000 a week.
Board member Jeff Miller said that while that is a lot of money, the district already spends a lot of money on things that are less vital.
"This could be money well spent," Miller said. "I think the idea of testing is great. I would be in favor of pursuing that option."
Board member Shari Klyber agreed.
"We spend half a million on asphalt, and these are people's lives," Klyber said.
Board President Dan Hunt and board member David Barsotti were concerned that the District 102 lab is not FDA-approved.
"My concern is the accuracy and quality of the tests," Barsotti said.
Campbell, who runs a lab at Loyola, said the lab does not have to be approved by the FDA, because the test is not approved by the FDA.
Miller noted that an imperfect test is better than no test at all.
Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski said he is interested in finding out more about District 102's experience with the test, but seemed put off by the cost and said that District 95's current procedures are working well.
"We have an exploratory interest in looking at what it can do for us to provide a safer environment, but we're pretty safe right now," Kuzniewski said. "Our kids are self-reporting and staying home.
"We're not having to quarantine and close down classrooms. But if there was a manner if we could utilize and share resources to keep kids safe, we certainly would want to explore that."