Nine suburban districts started school in person. How are they faring against COVID-19?

  • Brook Forest Elementary School Principal Dr. Chad Prosen checks on a first-grade class in Oak Brook.

      Brook Forest Elementary School Principal Dr. Chad Prosen checks on a first-grade class in Oak Brook. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Butler District 53 Superintendent Dr. Paul O'Malley explains how the students social distance during their lunch period in Oak Brook.

      Butler District 53 Superintendent Dr. Paul O'Malley explains how the students social distance during their lunch period in Oak Brook. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 9/24/2020 6:32 AM

It took all summer for Butler Elementary District 53 in Oak Brook to get ready for students to return to the classroom this fall.

Some students opted for remote learning, but about 60% of them returned to the schools. They started with half days, and more than a week ago began all-day in-person learning. The district has been able to avoid any cases of COVID-19 among students, faculty and staff, something Superintendent Paul O'Malley chalks up to the summerlong preparations.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Katie Myers teaches English on Thursday at Butler Junior High School in Oak Brook.
  Katie Myers teaches English on Thursday at Butler Junior High School in Oak Brook. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

"Overall, to date, it's been pretty successful," he said.

District 53 is one of nine suburban public school districts that started the school year with in-person learning. Administrators in several of the nine, which tend to have smaller student populations than many in the suburbs, report their districts remain free of COVID-19. One, Itasca Elementary District 10, is reporting four staff members and as many as five students have contracted the disease since school started Aug. 20. All the cases were contracted out of school, administrators said.

Northbrook Elementary District 28 officials notified parents Tuesday that one person at Greenbriar Elementary has tested positive.

Students learn in person and online at Brook Forest Elementary School in Oak Brook.
  Students learn in person and online at Brook Forest Elementary School in Oak Brook. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

When that happens, state guidelines require that anyone who is within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes must quarantine for 14 days or until medically cleared. Rooms have to be deep-cleaned and health departments are also notified.

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"Yes, we have received reports of COVID-19 cases associated with schools -- several individual cases and some clusters. Although this is unfortunate, it is not a surprise due to the high levels of community transmission," said Karen Ayala, director of the DuPage County Health Department, which is not making that data public.

Third-grade Brook Forest Elementary School student Nathan Matthews, 8, wipes down his space as he prepares for lunch at his desk in Oak Brook.
  Third-grade Brook Forest Elementary School student Nathan Matthews, 8, wipes down his space as he prepares for lunch at his desk in Oak Brook. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

"We are not releasing individual school information at this time, since schools are communicating directly with their students, staff, and families," she said.

Experiences of the nine districts come into focus as more schools that initially started classes remotely transition to in-person learning. Elmhurst Unit District 205, for instance, returned some students to classrooms this week.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Even the schools that have opened their doors offer remote learning for families concerned about health risks to students or to others in their households, or for those who might be quarantining.

A third-grade Brook Forest Elementary School student prepares for lunch at his desk in Oak Brook.
  A third-grade Brook Forest Elementary School student prepares for lunch at his desk in Oak Brook. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

School officials say they are firm in removing symptomatic individuals from campus.

"You can't let your guard down," said John Butts, superintendent at Medinah Elementary District 11. "You have to have a really good relationship with the health department and follow all the guidance."

Administrators say it's taken vigilance and extra effort at every level to keep students in classrooms.

"Our teachers have been working extraordinarily hard and had to shift in every aspect with how they are educating students," said Jenny Wojcik, Superintendent of Rondout Elementary District 72 in Lake Forest. "It's been one of the most complex working environments I've dealt with in all my years."

Water fountains are covered and marked out of order at Brook Forest Elementary School in Oak Brook. It's intended to help prevent spread of COVID-19.
  Water fountains are covered and marked out of order at Brook Forest Elementary School in Oak Brook. It's intended to help prevent spread of COVID-19. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

O'Malley said some at District 53 have stayed home or been sent home because of possible exposure to the disease.

"But none have resulted in positive cases of COVID," he said.

Other suburban districts that began the year offering full-time, in-person learning were Grass Lake Elementary District 36 in Antioch, Roselle Elementary District 12, Rosemont Elementary District 78 and West Northfield Elementary District 31. There were no plans for those districts to halt in-person learning, administrators said.

"It's going well," Rosemont Elementary Principal Laurie Kovalcik said. "It's a year like no other, but the kids are so happy to be back, and Aug. 18 was one of the most rewarding openings of school I've had, I'll tell you that."

Katie Myers teaches English at Butler Junior High School in Oak Brook.
  Katie Myers teaches English at Butler Junior High School in Oak Brook. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

More school districts are announcing plans to bring students back to the classroom in the coming weeks, either through a combination of in-person and remote learning or full-time, in-class sessions. Administrators at the districts that have been operating in-person programs all along say communication is key, especially with parents.

"It's all about building that partnership with the parents," Wojcik said. "They're front line. They've got to know the plan and how to monitor."

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