State releases guidelines for schools to reopen this fall
Children across Illinois are expected to return to school this fall -- a welcome development for many after months of remote learning but one bringing challenges and changes in the COVID-19 era.
State officials released guidelines for school districts to follow Tuesday. The plan affects kindergarten through grade 12, plus universities and colleges.
"The benefits of in-person instruction can't be overstated," Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a briefing.
The plan came as the one-day death toll for COVID-19 grew by 38 while the number of cases increased by 601, authorities reported.
How schools reset will be up to individual districts in consultation with state and county authorities. The new normal could initially involve a combination of in-class and remote learning, staggered schedules, and students attending different days.
"The strong emphasis is on providing in-person learning for all students," Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said.
Given the alternative, suburban districts were ready to work the logistics.
"We can't teach the kids from home forever," Oak Grove Elementary District 68 school board President Tony Giamis said.
The guidelines are part of the state's reopening transition that accelerates Friday with more COVID-19 restrictions lifted.
The new rules for schools include wearing masks inside, frequent hand-washing, a cap on 50-person gatherings per room and social distancing when possible. The state will also provide 2.5 million free cloth masks for students and teachers.
Intensive cleaning and health screenings with temperature checks are required.
Schools were closed in mid-March as the virus surged in Illinois and districts instituted remote learning, meaning everything from graduations to field days were conducted virtually.
"This fall will not be 'business as usual' in more ways than one," State Superintendent of Education Dr. Carmen I. Ayala said. For example, the state suggests starting school earlier so the first term can be completed in November in case another wave of the virus occurs.
What else will be different? Here's what the guidelines say.
• Hallways should be marked with one-way paths, teachers should rotate to classes rather than students, and locker use should be suspended if possible.
• Lunchtimes should follow the rule of 50 people or less and should be staggered to avoid crowding.
• Meet-the-teacher, open houses and parent-teacher conferences should occur virtually.
• On buses, no more than 50 kids will be allowed and all occupants must wear face masks.
• Face masks are required in gym and students should be 6 feet apart. Outdoor classes are preferred. Sports that require close guarding and physical contact must be avoided.
• Before- and after-school child care programs will need to adhere to IDPH protocols.
• Extracurricular clubs and activities will need to follow the 50-person limit with face masks and social distancing.
• Districts should re-evaluate grading policies and ensure all students have access to technology at home.
• Playgrounds may be used, but equipment should be cleaned often and schools should consider staggering recess and break times.
• Field trips are discouraged.
• School assemblies and gatherings in auditoriums or large spaces must follow the 50-person-or-less limit.
"I have hesitations about the size of the classroom and wearing a mask all day long," said Candice Reimholz, who has children entering the fourth and seventh grades at Gurnee-based Woodland Elementary School District 50. "I don't know how realistic that is, especially if you don't have mom there nagging them."
The governor acknowledged "there are real challenges. There's no doubt."
But Pritzker said he had faith parents, teachers and administrators will rise to the occasion. School communities "all have the same interests -- keeping these children and the people who work there safe."
At Arlington Heights Elementary District 25, "we have anticipated the release of these joint guidelines from IDPH and ISBE and are ready to put them into action," Superintendent Lori Bein said.
Many school leaders said teams of educators and parents already are crafting reopening policies and will review the guidelines to ensure conformance. That means families eager to learn the new drill might have to wait a bit.
"We anticipate sharing information with our community in early July," said Janet Buglio, spokeswoman for Indian Prairie Unit District 204 in Aurora and Naperville.
At Elmhurst Unit District 205, policymakers who began planning in May were "hamstrung due to lack of guidance from the state," Superintendent David Moyer said, adding he hopes local guidelines will be out the week of July 6.
Elgin Area School District U-46 spokeswoman Mary Fergus said, "We're eager to further develop (district) plans with the help of this new state guidance as well as input from our community."
Since the pandemic began, the number of COVID-19 cases statewide are 137,823, while total deaths stand at 6,707.
The state's average daily infection rate over the past week is at the lowest point since the outbreak began, Illinois Department of Public Health officials reported.
Health officials are reporting that just 2.4% of the tests taken over the past week resulted in a new case.
IDPH is reporting an average of fewer than 600 new cases a day over the past week, also another low.
Meanwhile, testing is at an all-time high with the state averaging 24,453 tests each day over the last seven days.
Hospitalization figures are holding steady statewide. There are 1,648 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide. COVID-19 admissions have hovered below 1,700 for the past four days. By comparison, there were more than 5,000 people hospitalized with the virus in late April.
Additionally, COVID-19 patients are taking up just 11% of the state's intensive care beds. IDPH is reporting 424 COVID-19 patients in ICU beds. Half of the state's ICU beds are available, according to IDPH figures.
On Monday, the Pritzker administration released guidelines for residents, business and industries to shift into Phase 4, or Revitalization, of a four-region, five-phase reopening plan. Schools reopening also fall into Phase 4.
• Daily Herald staff writers Chris Placek, Lauren Rohr, Robert Sanchez and Mick Zawislak contributed to this report.