Many K-12 school districts are tapping federal funds to pay for regular surveillance testing of students. It's an effective pandemic tactic when used alongside mask-wearing and other precautions.



Coronavirus outbreaks have already shut down classrooms across this country, affecting tens of thousands of students. But one school in Illinois is trying to avoid that fate by testing, testing and testing more.

Here's Christine Herman from member station WILL.

CHRISTINE HERMAN, BYLINE: It's Monday morning at Hillside School, just outside Chicago. A group of preschoolers has just filed into the gymnasium, where they're greeted by their energetic superintendent, Kevin Suchinski.

KEVIN SUCHINSKI: Come on down. Oh, your dress is so pretty. Is today your birthday?

HERMAN: First in line is a girl rocking a unicorn headband and sparkly pink skirt. In her hand is a small plastic tube with a little funnel attached. Suchinski guides her to a spot marked off with red tape and has her sit while he coaches her how to carefully release but not spit some saliva into the tube.

SUCHINSKI: You wait a second. You build up your saliva. You don't talk. You think about pizza, hamburgers, french fries, ice cream. And you drop it right in there, OK? You can sit right here and take off your mask, OK? There you go.

HERMAN: They'll get the results for all these kids - more than 200 - by tomorrow and do it all over again next week. The school was among the first in Illinois to start regular testing. And now almost half of the state's 2 million K-12 students attend schools rolling out similar programs. Hillside goes through eighth grade. And so far, the parents of two-thirds of these students have agreed to the testing.

Seventh-grader Julian Hernandez says, last spring, testing caught a mild infection his classmate didn't know he had.

JULIAN HERNANDEZ: And him and his brother had to go back home, like, two weeks before school ended. They were OK. They only had mild symptoms, really.

HERMAN: Brandon Munoz in the fifth grade says he's glad to get tested because he's too young for the vaccine. And he really doesn't want to go back to Zoom school.

BRANDON MUNOZ: Because I want to really meet more people and friends and just not stay in the computer for too long.

HERMAN: Schools in other states, including Massachusetts, Maryland and Colorado, are also testing regularly. Los Angeles schools have gone so far as to mandate it. That stands in pretty sharp contrast to states where people are still fighting about basic things, like wearing masks. Schools without mask mandates have experienced outbreaks and even teacher deaths.

Suchinski hopes this investment in testing prevents the school from spreading the virus and keeps kids learning.

SUCHINSKI: What we say to ourself is if we don't do this program, we could be losing instruction because we'd have to close down the school. So for the testing program - is another one of our layered mitigations to make sure that we stay open.

HERMAN: Hillside also bumped up ventilation with a new HVAC system and windows with screens in the cafeteria. About 90% of Hillside staff is vaccinated. And everyone wears a mask.

Mara Aspinall studies biomedical testing at Arizona State University. She says, compared to a year ago, COVID testing is now much less invasive and less expensive. And there's more help to cover the costs.

MARA ASPINALL: The Biden administration has allocated $11 billion to different programs for testing. There should be no school - public, private or charter - that can't access that money for testing.

HERMAN: It's a big lift to create a mass testing program from scratch. But more than half of all states have announced programs to help schools get the money and handle the logistics. And while $11 billion sounds like a lot, it would run out in a couple months if every school tested every student once a week.

Epidemiologist Becky Smith is with the University of Illinois. She says twice-a-week testing would be even better. But schools have to weigh what's ideal against what's realistic.

BECKY SMITH: If you're lucky, you can get away without doing testing because nobody comes to school with a raging infection and takes their mask off at lunchtime and infects everybody sitting at the table with them.

HERMAN: But, Smith says, she'd rather schools not rely on luck right now.

For NPR News, I'm Christine Herman in Hillside, Ill.

MARTIN: This story comes from NPR's partnership with Illinois Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTYM'S "NIGHTFALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.