Safe Schools

November 2021 View more

Each week, Naperville students take a test that has nothing to do with evaluating their academic development and everything to do with keeping their friends, families, and community safe.

The students—about 70 percent of Naperville Community Unit School District 203’s enrollment—take part in COVID-19 testing the district offers through SHIELD Illinois. School leaders hope the practice will minimize the spread of the illness and provide a greater sense of normalcy after two academic years reshaped by the virus.

“It’s another layer of mitigation,” along with masking and distancing, says Patrick Nolten, the district’s assistant superintendent for assessment and accountability. “We want to keep students safe and keep students in school.”
The program uses the diagnostic saliva test developed by the University of Illinois. The virus is detectable sooner and at lower levels in saliva than in the nasal passages, says Beth Heller, senior director of external relations for SHIELD. “We can catch a very large percentage of asymptomatic carriers,” she says. “We’re catching patient zero … and really stopping the chain of spread.”

Statewide, SHIELD has seven labs and a roster of third-party partners authorized to collect students’ saliva samples, deliver them to the labs, and work with the school districts to notify parents of positive tests, Heller says. In District 203 and other participating school systems, parents also can create an online account to receive their children’s results, Nolten says.

The SHIELD test received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in February and, with federal COVID-19 prevention money, became available to all Illinois school systems outside of Chicago in July, Heller says. School districts rushed to enroll but were unable to start testing until several weeks after classes started, as they and SHIELD worked out logistics and parents were given time to decide whether their minor children would participate.

District 203 began weekly testing in September, joining more than 360 state K–12 school systems, private schools, the U. of I. system, and other higher education campuses. Heller anticipates SHIELD will administer as many as two million tests weekly by November.

Last school year, students who were considered close contacts of someone who tested positive were asked to quarantine for as long as two weeks, regardless of their vaccination or testing status. Now under the Test to Stay protocol, students can take diagnostic saliva tests one, three, five, and seven days after exposure. If the tests are negative, students can continue attending school.

Saliva tests like SHIELD’s, or similar offerings from other providers, can detect the virus even before there’s enough of it present to spread to another person, Heller says.

Indian Prairie School District 204 is negotiating with a provider to offer the Test to Stay option, says district spokesperson Lisa Barry. “The district is happy to provide a service for our students which will maintain safety while improving attendance,” Barry says.

Testing Beyond Students
• Illinois requires all K–12 school staff members to be vaccinated against coronavirus or to submit proof of a negative test weekly. School employees may participate in onsite testing such as the SHIELD program or they may test independently and provide results to their school system.

• SHIELD Illinois diagnostic saliva testing is available to the public at 20 sites including in Aurora at 2450 North Farnsworth Avenue, directly across from Chicago Premium Outlets. For more information, visit

Photo courtesy University of Illinois system