'We all want kids to be safe': With reopening coming, school leaders want guidance from state

With the 2021-22 school year officially beginning today, suburban superintendents are scratching their heads about how to resume fully in-person classes this fall without a relaxation of state COVID-19 guidelines for social distancing and quarantining in schools.

Forty-seven large unit district superintendents have signed a letter to the Illinois State Board of Education demanding further guidance on how schools can safely reopen. They include superintendents from Algonquin, Barrington, Batavia, Burlington, Elgin, Geneva, Huntley, Lake Zurich, Naperville, Plainfield, Round Lake, St. Charles, Wauconda, West Aurora and Wheaton-Warrenville.

The state board in May adopted a resolution requiring all schools to resume fully in-person learning this fall, yet hasn't provided any details on what COVID-19 mitigations will be required.

“Our schools are just going to have a real hard time meeting that 100% requirement with the current guidance,” said John Burkey, executive director of the Large Unit District Association and former superintendent of Huntley Unit District 158. “There is none of those requirements for social distancing in public venues, but they are there in schools. We all want kids to be safe. We are not getting why there is still much more conservative guidance with schools than there is for the population at large. Our superintendents are just in a place where they have got to have schools ready in five or six weeks (in some cases).”

Elgin Area School District U-46, the state's second-largest district and the suburbs' largest unit district, has one of the earliest starts with classes beginning Aug. 16.

“We are planning for the return of 36,000 students,” Superintendent Tony Sanders said. “We can do it for elementary (schools) ... (but) it's not possible for us to follow the mitigation strategies for middle and high schools.”

Enrollment at the district's five high schools ranges from 1,900 to 2,800 students.

“I cannot assure 3 feet of social distance for students every day,” Sanders said.

High school students were in distance learning mode last fall, and returned after winter break to hybrid classes held in person two days a week in January. Only 50% of U-46 high-schoolers chose to learn in person five days a week after spring break for the last quarter of the school year.

Sanders said he supports wearing masks and other protocols for protecting students' health, but added, “school districts just need some flexibility to fully reopen in person. It's not possible to do that with the mitigation strategies that they are saying that we have to adhere.”

In her weekly message Tuesday, State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala addressed superintendents' concerns saying the state board is awaiting revised guidelines for schools from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Illinois Department of Public Health. Updated guidance for schools is expected in early July, she wrote.

“While we all wish this could come more quickly, we are hopeful that the CDC will provide additional insight into requirements for social distancing, mask wearing, and other mitigations that schools are taking. We recommend planning for both looser CDC guidance and the potential that current mitigations will remain in place,” she wrote.

Ayala stressed federal and state health experts are monitoring the new, more transmissible delta variant, which rapidly is spreading among the unvaccinated. She cited a recent outbreak at a teen camp in central Illinois that led to more than 80 cases, and a secondary outbreak with more than 10 cases.

“These outbreaks illustrate that we continue to deal with a virus that has shown itself to be both deadly and unpredictable, particularly for those who are unvaccinated,” she wrote.

Sanders said there's not enough time to create two scenarios for school reopening.

“I don't have a plan B,” he said. “We're a month away from the start of return for teachers and students. The large districts, especially, we can't turn on a dime.”

District leaders approved allowing a limited number of students under age 12 to continue learning remotely this fall for medical reasons since they are ineligible for the vaccine or if the student or a family member has health concerns.

“That's why, as a district, we are focusing more resources to our elementary (schools) in terms of adding teachers and adding desks to make sure that they are socially distanced better,” Sanders said.

If new guidance doesn't come in time, Sanders said, officials might start the school year in remote learning for secondary students “until such time we could comply.”

  Suburban schools are weeks away from reopening for the 2021-22 school year and still don't have guidance from the state about whether COVID-19 mitigations will be necessary. Rick West/
John Burkey
Tony Sanders
Carmen Ayala
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