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Illinois elementary schools can use COVID-19 testing for little to no cost after the Illinois Department of Public Health announced its access expansion.

The saliva-based covidSHIELD test developed by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is already available for middle schools, high schools and community colleges. Schools and the state health department will receive test results within 24 hours of specimens reaching a SHIELD Illinois lab, according to a press release from the state health department.

The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine is the only COVID vaccine authorized for children under the age of 18. Currently, children as young as 12 can be vaccinated — excluding almost all elementary-aged students.

Testing is free for schools in districts that are predominantly low-income — as determined by the Illinois State Board of Education's evidence-based funding criteria — and have experienced high rates of COVID infection. Other schools will have to pay a discounted fee of $10 per test.

The state health department did not immediately respond to questions about what qualifies as a high rate of infection and whether the tests will be available immediately or in the fall. While many Illinois schools have finished or are swiftly wrapping up the school year, East St. Louis School District 189, at least, extended the school year through the end of June.

Federal funds from the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan are being used by the state health department to pay for the rapid results testing, which is part of a $225 million agreement between the state and the University of Illinois system to identify asymptomatic individuals and stem the spread of COVID.

"As we move ever closer to returning to how we lived pre-pandemic, it is critically important that we identify cases of COVID-19 as quickly as possible to help prevent outbreaks, which could ultimately lead to new surges," said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike in a statement. "Offering testing in schools, along with vaccination and masking, can help protect students, staff and teachers when in-person learning resumes."

In May, the Illinois State Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution intended to be a "signal" to districts that schools will have to provide fully in-person learning in the fall. Local districts will still be able to provide remote options if they choose to, and they will be required to provide remote learning opportunities to students who are both ineligible to be vaccinated and are under a quarantine order.

The state board expects that most of those cases requiring remote learning will be elementary-aged students, Director of Communications Jackie Matthews said in an email statement at the time.

Clinical trials for the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine — as well as the Moderna-NIAID and Johnson & Johnson vaccines — have been expanded to include children. It's expected that the Pfizer shot will be authorized for children under the age of 12 sometime in the fall.

Illinois is set to fully re-open on Friday, while still recommending face coverings for unvaccinated people, including children, as well as requiring masks of all individuals on public transportation and in transportation hubs, in congregate facilities, and in healthcare settings. Businesses and venues may require face coverings and other mitigations at their discretion.

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