MONTICELLO — Students and employees of school districts in Piatt County now have access to free, rapid COVID-19 testing through Kirby Medical Center — a rural hospital based in Monticello.
Monticello school officials hope access to rapid COVID-19 testing will decrease the number of student and teacher absences in the district. Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines dictate that students and staff experiencing at least one symptom of COVID-19 either leave or stay home from school. They can also remain out of school for 10 days, or return with a doctor’s note, says Vic Zimmerman, superintendent of Monticello CUSD 25. (Monticello is the largest school district in the county.) Zimmerman says between 30 and 35 staff and students are absent from school every week because they’re experiencing a symptom linked to the coronavirus. Zimmerman says about 85% of students are in school five days per week, while the remainder are learning remotely.
COVID-19 testing is accessible through state-run community-based testing sites, but it can take between two and 10 days for results to come back, Zimmerman says. Additionally, he says, siblings of students and family members of students who report symptoms must also quarantine.
Zimmerman says the district has had two positive cases of COVID-19 since school reopened last month — one student and one employee. He says they contracted the virus outside of school.
“We’re not talking about positive COVIDs, we’re talking about negative COVIDs, and they’re having to be out of school just because the testing results are taking too long to return,” Zimmerman says.
He says he mentioned the problem to administrators at Kirby Medical Center, and the hospital’s charitable wing — The Kirby Foundation — agreed to fund the cost of COVID-19 tests for students and employees with at least one COVID-19 symptom.
Kirby Medical Center will be providing no-cost RAPID COVID testing for our employees and students with same day results (within hours of testing daily) in order that our employees and students with symptoms and negative COVID tests can get back in school the next day.
— Vic Zimmerman (@MonticelloCUSD) October 2, 2020
The hospital is offering drive-thru COVID-19 nasal swab antigen tests to staff and students starting this week so long as they provide a form from the district.
“This rapid result will allow (teachers) to come back the very next day and not miss four days of school and have classrooms with subs instead of actual certified teachers we’ve hired — it’s going to be great,” Zimmerman says.
He says other superintendents around Illinois are jealous of the district’s access to testing.
Mark Fred, chief operating officer for Kirby Medical Center, says he hopes other hospitals across the state and country follow their lead.
“The model for healthcare in these times is not so much to bring people to the hospital but to bring healthcare to the communities and to the people, and we feel this is a trendsetting step in that direction to be able to bring the healthcare to the community for the purposes of being able to help the kids stay in school,” Fred says.
The cost of testing supplies is about $35 per test administered, Fred says, which does not include overhead costs absorbed by the hospital.
He says the foundation has set aside money for the project, and when that funding runs out, they’ll have to decide whether to continue funding the initiative.
“I’m confident that they’ll make the decision to support the community in whatever way is needed or possible and I’m not specifically aware what their commitment is for the long-term, because we don’t really know what the long-term is,” Fred says. He says he doesn’t know how much money the foundation has budgeted for testing.
Fred says the testing program is a win-win for the schools and the hospital. He says steering potentially infected students and staff to drive-thru testing sites will help them catch the disease sooner — and keep it out of the hospital as much as possible.
“It just makes sense for hospitals to partner with the community and to partner with the schools in this way, in my opinion, because it allows them to continue to function and it allows us to continue to keep the right care in the right setting,” Fred says. “We really hope this idea grows a life throughout the country, really, and people start to help in this way.”
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Lee Gaines is a reporter for Illinois Public Media.