COVID-19 testing now available for students and staff

This semester, students and staff participating in hybrid instruction at LHS and VHHS have the opportunity to participate in weekly COVID-19 testing through Abbott Laboratories’ new diagnostic test, the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card. 

Earlier this month, District 128 Superintendent Prentiss Lea and Board President Pat Groody announced via email that the D128 Board of Education had approved a contract with Passport Health to provide COVID-19 tests to LHS and VHHS students and staff; the tests are being paid for by the district. 

LHS students and staff who opt into the testing program report to the main gym for testing at their assigned weekly times. They are required to self-administer a nasal swab in both nostrils, which is then placed in a card that is linked up to Abbott’s NAVICA app. 

According to LHS Band Director Adam Gohr, the testing process was “very straightforward” and convenient for being “right there in the school.” Mr. Gohr recalled that he received his test results through the app 15 minutes following his first COVID-19 test. 

Any individual who tests positive will have to take the BinaxNOW test again. This will confirm that they are a positive case. If the individual tests negative following their second BinaxNOW test, then they have to schedule a RT-PCR test outside of school. The result of the RT-PCR test is considered final.

A presentation by the district with information about the BinaxNOW COVID-19 test revealed their goal of an 80% participation rate among students and staff. Currently, close to 80% of staff are participating in testing, according to Mr. Groody. However, he also indicated that, “unfortunately we’re closer to 60% with our student population.” Mr. Groody added that he would “really like students to surprise [him] and show [him they] can get 90% of students” to take the COVID-19 tests weekly.

One concern that some students have about testing is how they should budget it into their schedule. Senior Emma Bleck stated that some students “are worried that [they are] taking time out of the day” to take the test. However, Bleck also feels that it is her “responsibility” to take the test in order to help ensure that the school is safe, claiming that “it’s better to be safe than sorry.” 

Mr. Groody indicated that students would be allowed to leave class in order to participate in COVID-19 testing. He calls the 10-minute sacrifice of class time a “price to pay in order to really keep the pandemic levels down.”

As of right now, District 128 has yet to reveal specific data regarding the COVID-19 testing results. Mr. Groody hinted that this data will be released on the District 128 website on a future date, as they “want to be as transparent as possible.” Mr. Groody also claimed that the positivity rate following the first round of testing was “very low.”

According to Abbott, the BinaxNOW test is an antigen test, which means that it detects a specific protein — the nucleocapsid protein — that is part of the SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19. Health magazine states that antigen tests differ from PCR COVID-19 tests, which specifically test for genetic material.

In Abbott’s clinical studies, they have found that the BinaxNOW test has a 98.5% specificity rate. This means that 98.5% of those who tested negative for the test in the study were actually COVID-19 negative. Furthermore, the sensitivity rate of the BinaxNOW test was found to be 97.1% in the study. The sensitivity rate refers to the accuracy of the test’s ability to detect positive cases of COVID-19.

However, the FDA cites that 97.1% sensitivity may be too low on the BinaxNOW test, especially compared to PCR tests. An FDA report notes that antigen tests are known to be “less sensitive” than molecular tests. As a result, the FDA believes that a positive test result from BinaxNOW is highly accurate, but a negative test result may actually be positive. The test also has not been formally approved for FDA use but has been made available under the use of the Emergency Use Authorization supported by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. However, the Harvard School of Public Health has indicated that antigen tests can be highly effective in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 if they are used frequently and rapidly.

District 128 is not the only Illinois school district that is incorporating COVID-19 testing into its school reopening plan. Lake Forest, Wheaton North and New Trier High Schools are also pouring funds into testing for their students as they slowly reopen their schools. However, differing from the D128 strategy, the latter two high schools are administering saliva-based tests to their students and staff, according to the Patch. These spit tests are non-diagnostic, which means that a positive COVID-19 test is only “presumably positive.” Any individual who tests positive for one of these tests will need to take an official COVID-19 test to receive a more accurate result.

The biggest difference between the testing strategy of LHS and VHHS, and those of Lake Forest, Wheaton North and New Trier High Schools is that D128 schools are not making testing mandatory. Based on the legal interpretation of various laws by District 128 lawyers, the district determined that they could not mandate that students take the COVID-19 BinaxNOW test to attend school. However, according to Mr. Groody, the district plans to eventually require testing for all individuals participating in sports and other extracurricular activities.