New initiatives expand COVID-19 saliva-based testing to underserved schools in Illinois

Children's Health

The University of Illinois System, with a $1.4 million grant from The Rockefeller Foundation, announces the expansion of its SHIELD Illinois and SHIELD CU COVID-19 testing initiatives to help safely reopen underserved K-12 schools in communities across the state using the covidSHIELD test, an innovative, saliva-based test developed at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).

More than 1.5 million covidSHIELD tests have been administered since July 2020, keeping in-person classes open at the University of Illinois campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield since the Fall 2020 semester. The new program, SHIELD Illinois: Target, Test, Tell for Underserved K-12 Districts, will be rolled out in schools located in the three cities, targeting vulnerable areas that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

“Widespread, regular COVID-19 testing remains critical to reopening and keeping schools open, but it is costly and requires the help of medical personnel,” said Andrew Sweet, Managing Director of COVID-19 Response and Recovery at The Rockefeller Foundation. “The SHIELD Illinois and SHIELD CU programs address those challenges, giving schools with limited resources, equal opportunity to keep students, staff, and families safe.”

The new Shield K-12 program will be deployed across every grade level in four schools: Champaign Unit 4’s Stratton Academy of the Arts Elementary School (K-5 grades), Chicago Jesuit Academy (3-8 grades), J.W. Eater Junior High School in Rantoul (6-8 grades), and Urbana High School (9-12 grades). The comprehensive program includes tests, equipment, rapid results, and on-site support.

“We worked with school districts to select a representative sample of the different kinds of schools across Illinois, focusing on schools that work with low-resource populations,” said Rebecca Smith, Professor of Pathobiology at University of Illinois and Project Lead of SHIELD Illinois’ K-12 testing program. “The Rockefeller Foundation, through its pandemic response initiative, connected us with school districts and school officials across the country who are trying to develop COVID-safe best practices around re-openings. We are combining this with our experience keeping the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign open by using widescale, frequent testing to help these schools stay open safely.”

In February 2021, the University of Illinois received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to expand the use of covidSHIELD beyond the university system. The saliva-based test is innovative, in part due to its simplicity: individuals fill a test tube with saliva, which is analyzed at a lab, with results available on a phone app in about 24 hours. Because it does not require medical personnel to collect samples, the test costs significantly less than ones using nasal swab tests. The test is sensitive enough to detect even small amounts of genetic material, including new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that originated in other countries, and was shown to be highly accurate in a clinical study for the EUA application.

In addition to the saliva-based tests, the K-12 SHIELD screening testing program includes:

  • Consistent, evidence-based testing regimen based on a risk assessment in the school and wider community.
  • Samples processed at CLIA-certified laboratories that meet federal standards for quality and reliability established by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments.
  • 24-hour turnaround time for results along with a clear process for sample collection and delivery.
  • Clear notification plan to report positive cases to parents and school staff.
  • Access to communication tools for successful implementation, including videos and teaching materials to demonstrate how to conduct saliva-based testing and educational narratives–in both English and Spanish–aimed at younger children who may need additional direction.

“In fulfillment of our mission as a preeminent publicly engaged, land-grant research institution in the 21st century, it is incumbent upon us to work with and serve as an anchor for our whole Champaign-Urbana community–to stay well and safe, to offset learning loss, and to combat racial disparities in education,” said Dr. Wanda E. Ward, UIUC Executive Associate Chancellor and co-lead of SHIELD CU. “Future generations of Illinois innovators, scientists, educators, and entrepreneurs may well be educated, inspired, and nurtured in these schools. On behalf of SHIELD CU, we wish to extend gracious thanks to The Rockefeller Foundation for providing support to enable Illinois’ underserved K-12 schools to safely reopen and remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic.” SHIELD CU is the University’s local saliva-based testing program designed to serve Champaign-Urbana and surrounding communities and SHIELD Illinois is a screening testing program and infrastructure that deploys the saliva-based testing across the state.

The SHIELD Illinois: Target, Test, Tell for Underserved K-12 Districts program includes collaborations with Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, University of Southern California, and Arizona State University and partnerships with the Illinois Governor’s Office, the Mayor of Chicago’s Office, the Illinois Department of Public Health, and the City of Chicago Department of Public Health. Rebecca Smith, Illinois professor of pathobiology, will oversee the project with Catherine Cheung, researcher at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, who is coordinating operations across the University of Illinois System, SHIELD CU, OSF HealthCare and selected K-12 schools. The program is also seeking additional support to sustain efforts on reopening K-12 schools and plans to share protocols and guidelines with other K-12 schools across the country. To learn more about SHIELD Illinois, please visit

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