By: Liz Ahlberg Touchstone
A new resource is available to help guide teachers and school administrators as they reopen schools amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, assembled by researchers and experts at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
As vaccines for the virus that causes COVID-19 become more accessible, more communities and schools are reopening. However, no vaccines have been approved for children under 16 to date, leaving school districts with many questions to navigate as they reopen and plan for the 2021-22 school year.
The K-12 Shield Playbook is based on the SHIELD Illinois program used to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic at the university. The multidimensional “Target, Test, Tell” approach resulted in a fall 2020 semester with zero COVID-19-related hospitalizations or deaths in the university community, positivity rates generally maintained below 0.5% and minimal transmission from the campus to the surrounding Champaign-Urbana community.
“We are sharing what we’ve learned, so other schools who want to add this can learn from our experience,” said study leader Rebecca L. Smith (IGOH), an Illinois professor of pathobiology. “The K-12 Playbook provides all of the resources that a school would need in one place. There are a lot of resources out there, but they’re scattered. We brought it all together as a resource repository for schools, with a guide to making all the decisions necessary to reopen a K-12 school.”
The “Target, Test, Tell” approach combined extensive disease modeling with a low-cost, rapid saliva-based test and an app to report and track test results and virus exposures. In addition to masking, distancing and facilities maintenance, this approach can be applied in other school settings as well, the researchers said.
“We’ve seen this program work at Illinois, and now we need to make it as accessible as possible to other universities, K-12 schools and communities throughout the U.S. and the world to help build a bridge to widespread global vaccination,” said Dr. Martin D. Burke (MMG), the associate dean for research at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine and a professor of chemistry.
“There is great cause for optimism that the COVID-19 vaccines will ultimately get us out of this extraordinarily challenging situation. But this is not going to happen overnight. It will take more time than any of us would like, and until widespread immunity has been achieved, we cannot let our guard down. This is why the Shield Playbook is so important,” Burke said.
The K-12 Shield Playbook contains modules on cleaning, distancing, health data, masking, testing and ventilation. Each module guides users through a series of questions about their situation and provides information and checklists of steps to take toward the user’s stated goals. Members of the SHIELD Illinois team worked with experts at the College of Education and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications to develop the playbook and make it available online.
“Our goal has been to make the K-12 Shield Playbook freely available on the web as a living document that can be continually updated as we learn more,” Smith said. “We want people to have the benefit of what we’ve learned, and we want to learn from them, too.”
The Shield Playbook received support from the Consortia for Improving Medicine with Innovation & Technology through the Point of Care Technology Research Network program. CIMIT and POCTRN are supported by the RADx Tech program and have been funded in part with federal funds from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, under Grant No. U54 EB015408.
By: Liz Ahlberg Touchstone
Photos By: L. Brian Stauffer