Inside a tent outside the National Center for Supercomputing Applications on the University of Illinois campus, Uni High teacher Joel Beesley swiped his university ID card and was handed a small vial.
He drooled into the vial, and later in the day, he found out he had tested negative for COVID-19. The ability to take a quick, cheap test just blocks away from their school might just be the reason Uni High students will be able to return to the building sometime this fall.
Uni High will begin the year with remote learning, but it may eventually move to a hybrid model of in-person and online learning. To put it simply, the test developed down the street would be the only reason that’s possible.
“There’s no way we would even try to have hybrid school without the capacity to have weekly testing,” Uni High Director Elizabeth Majerus said. “The ease of testing is super valuable, not having to go far away. The fact that it’s very simple to do is very helpful.”
After the UI accomplishes its gargantuan goal of testing 10,000 students and faculty on campus every day this fall, its saliva test could theoretically offer a lifeline to K-12 schools in Champaign-Urbana and beyond.
Preliminary conversations about such a process began a few weeks ago. At the Champaign school board’s July 13 meeting, Superintendent Susan Zola said that UI chemistry Professor Martin Burke, one of the test’s originators, had reached out to her earlier that week to talk about a collaboration.
“They reached out, and we have some cabinet-level staff that are working with them,” Zola said the next day. “With a community that’s rich in resources and expertise and technology, we’re excited that we might be able to partner with the university on a very quick and efficient test that would give more data than we would normally have around teachers and staff if we were actually able to administer that kind of a test.”
To get to that point, though, won’t be simple.
To Anita Ung, who studied biostatistics and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, testing in elementary schools could be a game-changer for multiple reasons.
For one, it’s a way to democratize testing. Currently, test-positivity rates in Champaign County are much higher for Black and Hispanic residents than White ones. As of Thursday, 13.6 percent of tests taken by Hispanic residents and 4.2 percent of tests taken by Black residents came back positive. Test-positivity among White residents was 1.3 percent.
“If they had primary, free, easy access through schools, it would be a way to equalize the pandemic in our town,” Ung told the Champaign school board at that July 13 meeting. “By having widespread testing throughout schools, you guys will have infinitely more choices.” Teachers wary of going back to the classroom would suddenly have another line of defense.
“I think it would give (teachers and staff) confidence in lock-step with other safety measures, with other safety protocols being explicit,” said Mike Sitch, vice president of the Champaign Federation of Teachers union. “If we’re going to get a grip on the pandemic, we have to know where the disease is. And the only way to know where the disease is, is to test and monitor.
Implementing widespread testing in schools, though, likely won’t happen quickly.
UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said it’s too early to answer questions as to when the test might be available for broader community use. She did say, though, that the UI’s committee in charge of implementing testing is “working tirelessly to make it possible to share the test beyond our campus community as quickly as humanly possible.”
The test offers advantages that could make it viable for schools. Because it bypasses one of the most time-intensive steps in the normal testing process and doesn’t require the use of nasal swabs, it’s quicker and easier to administer. It’s also cheaper. A paper published by UI researchers estimated the cost at $10 per test, and that price could go down if pool testing is used.
Even if enough tests were manufactured, they need further regulatory approval before being used by the broader community. During an appearance July 20 in Urbana, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said that’s something he and his staff are working on.
“We’re working very closely with the U of I to get that fast-track authorization from the FDA,” Pritzker said. “There’s still work being done on it, and they have to manufacture enough of these tests so that they’re widely available. I’ve talked to some of the best epidemiologists in the world, some of them right here in Illinois, and they say that these saliva tests have real promise. So I’m relying upon the science that U of I is doing along with epidemiologists, and that if we can do that, it helps us expand testing across the state even more than we’ve done.
“I have to say, so far, the evidence (on the efficacy of the test) seems pretty good, but there’s still a little bit to go.”
Of course, a situation like Champaign’s is far different from Uni High.
Tests would theoretically have to be delivered back and forth between all of its schools and a testing center if it plans to test students. And regular testing isn’t a reason to throw vigilance out the window cautioned Champaign-Urbana Public Health District Administrator Julie Pryde.
“I think U of I has been very amenable to all situations, but the logistics of testing every single schoolkid in the entire county, I don’t think anyone has addressed that yet,” Pryde said. “There are costs associated with that and there would be the logistics of getting it done and getting the samples out to the school.
“There’s certainly widespread testing available in our community, but these tests are only a point in time. You’re only saying that you’re not positive, and again, (nasal-swab tests) have a 20 percent false-negative rate, so you’re not even 100 percent sure saying you’re negative.”
For the beginning of the year, Champaign and Urbana schools will likely be left without in-school testing, although free testing is still available around town.
How the saliva test plays out on campus when students return to class on Aug. 24 will likely have a large hand in when and if the test is more widely distributed. While Champaign school board president Amy Armstrong said that collaborating with the UI is “a bridge to cross when we come to it” and still seemed far down the road, the upside could be tremendous.
“We could be a model,” Armstrong said. “We could provide data to the rest of the country.”
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Beesley hadn’t taken the nasal-swab test that’s offered around town, but he’s heard about the discomfort of sticking a swab deep into each nostril for 15 seconds.
The saliva test was painless.
“It was very simple and very well prepared,” he said, adding that he’s wary of false-negative results. “I would love to be able to be back in the classroom with the kids, and I hope this helps facilitate it.”
For children, the lack of a swab alone may make it possible to self-administer.
“It would be logistically impossible to swab (10,000) kids,” Ung said. “However, the cheaper tests, and one where kids can literally drool into a test tube, it’s way, way easier and totally in the realm of possibility.”
While it wouldn’t mean a return to packed hallways and interactive classrooms, a widespread, quick, accurate test for students could change the frame of mind for teachers and administrators. It could also allow more kids to return to school and more parents to get back to work.
For now, though, it’s still a theoretical solution as society struggles to inch back to normal.
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