WINNETKA, IL — Starting Sunday, New Trier High School students must submit saliva samples for weekly coronavirus testing in order to participate in any on-campus instruction. The requirement does not apply to staff at the Northfield and Winnetka campuses.
Participation in the district's COVID-19 screening program was voluntary for its first five weeks ahead of winter break. According to the data provided by the district, about one in six students — and one in four staff members — did not participate in the testing program.
School board members reached a consensus earlier this month in favor of making the program mandatory for all students who are able to provide the required spit samples and encouraging administrators to negotiate with staff unions to ensure all teachers are tested for the virus.
"We understand that there might be an appeal process for some people and some accommodations for students with different needs," Board President Cathleen Albrecht said at a Dec. 14 meeting. "We also would like the superintendent and his administration to work with the employee associations to work to achieving full participation from all employees on campus."
Board member Greg Robitalle said he favored requiring the tests for both students and staff on campus, just as the district does other measures aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus.
"I don't understand why we would take the position that masks are required to be in the building, that social distancing is required, that plexiglass, cleaning, air filtration, all of this is required — except for this one thing over here called 'screening' that we're going to give people the option to participate in or not. I don't understand why that's somehow different than all the other mitigants we have," Robitalle said.
Robitalle asked the New Trier High School Education Association — the collective bargaining unit that represents teachers — to work with administrators to figure out how to make the testing program mandatory.
"These are the very people who are expressing high levels of concern about the conditions inside the building and yet they're not participating at 100 percent," he said. "It makes no sense to me."
No comment was immediately available Wednesday from a teacher's union spokesperson regarding whether the association supported mandatory testing and why. Any response received will be added here.
Board Vice President Marc Glucksman, a molecular biologist who teaches at the Rosalind Franklin University medical school, said the district needed to reach at least 90 percent participation.
"We're really the pioneers here, and it places an extra burden on us. We really need to make this a habit, and if it's a question of convenience, as easy as possible. But there are so many good things about the screening," Glucksman said. "It's brief, it's accurate, it's totally non-invasive, it's free, it's privacy protected ... and it protects the students, the staff and the community. So I'm still looking for a downside."
Starting Monday, the district's health screening tool will ask students if they have submitted their mandatory saliva screening drop-off. Those who do not submit samples weekly will be excluded from the screening tool and will not be able to receive the digital code that allows students to access campus. They will be assigned to remote instruction instead, according to administrators.
Parents or guardians who still want their student to attend classes on campus but object to taking part in the screening program, or who wish to challenge the move to remote instruction, may request a meeting with their campus principal.
"Making sure to turn in your student's saliva sample weekly not only helps protect students and staff on campus, but it also has benefits for participants — including identifying whether your student may be an asymptomatic carrier and helping to prevent the spread of the virus to family and friends," Winnetka principal Denise Dubravec and Northfield principal Paul Waechtler said in a message to parents.
New Trier is scheduled to end its first semester on Jan. 25, after Martin Luther King Jr. Day and three days of finals. The next day, the district plans to shift to dividing the students whose parents or guardians have opted for partially in-person instruction into two groups instead of four groups, also known as shifting from a 25 percent hybrid program to a 50 percent hybrid program.
The district has budgeted up to $1.3 million for the rapid saliva testing program, which is handled by Brookfield-based Safeguard Screening, founded by Ed Campbell, an immunologist who also serves on the board of LaGrange School District 102, the first to begin using the testing method.
Superintendent Paul Sally said the district has monitored everyone who has been potentially exposed to COVID-19 while at school. He told the board at its Dec. 14 meeting that there has not been a single confirmed coronavirus case traced to contact at school — whether between students or staff.
As of Dec. 18, there were 10 students and six staff members with positive COVID-19 diagnoses, as well as 28 students and seven asymptomatic staff members who were quarantined due to close contact with a confirmed case.
The superintendent said none of the people the district has notified of potential on-campus exposure have been found to have contracted the virus there.
"We keep track of all those names, we keep spreadsheets of everyone we've sent letters to and when we're doing a contact tracing we're also asking where people have been," Sally said. "All of our contact tracing where people have been connected to one another has been because of outside of school — they're in the same family, or they attended the same function outside of school somewhere or on the same travelling team or something like that."