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Federal health authorities say test-to-stay option could keep kids out of quarantine. Bloomington-Normal schools weigh-in.

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New guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends school district leaders adopt a test-to-stay practice designed to keep kids out of quarantine and in the classroom.

Issued late Friday, the updated recommendation comes after federal health authorities studied the results of multiple schools that adopted such practices earlier this year, including several in suburban Lake County.

Instead of having students who have been exposed to COVID-19 undergo a 10-day quarantine by default, the new guidance says students who are masked at the time of exposure can take regular COVID tests and, as long as the results are negative, stay in class.

CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky called the protocols a “now-proven practice” — and despite the formal guidance having been issued only recently, District 87 superintendent Barry Reilly said the practice already has been proven in Bloomington schools, as well.

District 87 adopted its own test-to-stay protocols in October, starting first with junior high and high schoolers.

“It worked really well; we found that at the secondary level, it wasn’t as challenging as we thought it might be, so we expanded it down to our elementary schools,” he said. “It’s really had a great impact on keeping our ‘close contacts’ from having to quarantine — very successful, in that regard.”

District 87 began tracking the number of students who used test-to-stay to remain in school the week of Oct. 11. Since then, 346 students who would previously have had to quarantine stayed in school after testing negative for COVID-19 every other day, according to district figures. 

“If we weren’t using this, our number of quarantines, I have do doubt, would probably triple,” said Reilly, who credits the success of the program, in part, to the fact that the district isn’t short on nurses: There’s one at each of the district’s nine schools, as well as an additional nurse that “floats” between the middle and high school.

District 87 nurses already were administering antigen COVID tests before “test-to-stay” measures were adopted, said Reilly, meaning the move “just expanded the number of tests they were doing.”

“A lot of it has to do with staffing capacity,” he said. “If you don’t have enough staff or don’t have full-time nurses, it’d be really tough to do this.”

Unit 5 District Superintendent Kristen Weikle agreed: Her district has nearly three times as many schools (24), but hasn’t yet adopted test-to-stay protocols because of staffing shortfalls, she said.

“We need more staff available than, let’s say, a district that has one or two buildings at every grade,” she said. "Do we need one person for every building? We don't think so, but we need at least one person for every couple of buildings."

"So, at a minimum, if we were just to look at junior high and high school, we're going to need at least four people to help meet the demand, given the number of students we have in all of those buildings."

Like other school districts in the state, Unit 5 offers its students SHIELD Illinois testing, the saliva-based test developed in the early months of the pandemic by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. That test is being used by more than 1,700 K-12 schools.

But offering a voluntary test with results that come back online is a different matter entirely than what the test-to-stay protocols require, Weikle said, which has stunted the district’s ability to adopt the protocol.

“When you administer the test, you have so many minutes that you have to wait to read the results,” she said. “Then, you have so many minutes that you have to wait to enter the result. That just puts extra challenges on us.”

Weikle posited that it would be easier if families could get their own test and then share the results, but with the way that CDC guidance is “right now, that’s not an option with test-to-stay.”

“Schools continue to get more and more suggestions, requirements and mandates put on us — and without a lot of flexibility,” she said. “I think (recommendations) are made with good intentions, but they obviously don’t check with school superintendents or educators within a variety of sizes of school districts that they assist with.”

Weikle said she plans to give an update on where the district stands with adopting test-to-stay protocols at a January board meeting.

“We definitely want to do it — it’s just staffing that is a challenge,” she said. “Our HR department and assistant superintendent actually just met (Friday) to see whether we could reach out to a temp agency because we currently don’t have employees internally to even fill all of the positions that we have.”

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