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Illinois school district considers testing program to keep kids in school even if they're exposed to COVID

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Naperville School District 203 is considering a "test-to-stay" program in which students who have been exposed to COVID-19 but not infected can stay in school rather than having to quarantine at home.

Superintendent Dan Bridges briefed the school board on the idea Monday as a possible way to keep students in school if they are not actually sick.

As of Monday, 1,992 students were forced to quarantine because they were exposed to someone with coronavirus, according to the district's COVID-19 dashboard. Of that number, however, only 98 actually contracted the illness, data shows.

"As we continue to evaluate the impact of lost time in the classrooms, we know that we have to consider what other options there may be," he said.

If the test-to-stay program is implemented, students — and staff members — who were in close contact to someone infected with COVID would be allowed to participate in a regular school day but would be required to be tested on the first, third, fifth and seventh day after the exposure, Bridges said. If a test comes back positive or symptoms start to develop, they will be required to go home.

All mask and social distancing requirements would remain in place for those students who may have been exposed so fellow students should be at low risk even if a test later comes back positive.

While the Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Department of Public Health say test-to-stay is an acceptable option for school districts, the DuPage County Health does not.

Among other things, county officials say they won't support something that doesn't have CDC backing and they are concerned that districts would have too much leeway in how they enforce the rules.

No schools or facilities have had five or more COVID-exposure or confirmed cases so far this school year, according to the dashboard said.

School districts see test-to-stay as a "tool in the toolbox" to reduce the number of students and staff staying home, Bridges said. The issue is whether the manpower and resources involved can be justified, he said.

"Tremendous credit to our school nurses, our health techs and those who support and monitor contact tracing because ... it does take a tremendous amount of time and energy," Bridges said. "We're already a stretched thin group and we really need to thoughtfully carefully think about what (test-to-stay) could look like."

Voluntary SHIELD COVID-19 testing developed by the University of Illinois is set to start at District 203 next week, but the saliva-based test is administered once a week. Bridges said test-to-stay requires multiple tests every week.

"Even if we go to that, if we are able to implement that as a protocol or as an option for us, there will have to be some testing that is done outside of the school environment," Bridges said.

"We can look at other options potentially that may be a cost to the district, but I think still one of the biggest challenges is going to be personnel and the ability to manage the protocol internally," he said.

Board President Kristin Fitzgerald said she believed the district should continue to research test-to-stay as an option given that roughly 10% of students have already had to stay home due to quarantine.

"I think it would be great if you continue to look at additional (test) providers ... just to continue to investigate what kinds of providers may have the availability, both for test-to-stay and for our symptom-based exclusions," Fitzgerald said.

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