'Knock on wood, we're in a pretty good place': In-person learning starts to return in suburbs
Some suburban school districts went back to in-person learning after the winter break, and more will be doing so in the coming weeks, some with added tools such as COVID-19 testing for staffs.
Students in Palatine Township Elementary District 15 and Oak Grove Elementary District 68 were back last week after a pause for all-virtual learning between Thanksgiving and winter break. Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 restarted with a hybrid learning model Monday.
Barrington Area Unit District 220, whose students had all-virtual learning this school year with the exception of a few days in late October, will implement hybrid learning starting Jan. 19. Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128 will do the same.
Naperville Unit District 203 plans to roll out a hybrid schedule the week of Jan. 25. Hawthorn Elementary District 73 will be starting that the week of Feb. 1.
School officials pointed to guidance from the Centers for Disease Controls of Prevention saying that school districts, regardless of regional COVID-19 data indicators, can diminish risk for spread if they rigorously follow five key mitigation strategies: consistent and correct use of masks, social distancing to the largest extent possible, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and disinfection, and contact tracing in collaboration with local health departments.
District 15 spokeswoman Morgan Delack said things have been going well since reopening Jan. 5. The district is adhering to the same precautionary measures it took in the fall, and about two-thirds of students chose hybrid learning this term, same as in the fall, she said. Others are attending remotely.
The district posts weekly COVID-19 data on its website and reported 15 new cases of COVID-19 among students and 11 among staff members last week. The district hasn't closed any classrooms or buildings since reopening, Delack said.
"If we see multiple cases in one classroom or building that could be connected by time and place, we will consider a closure at some level," she said.
District 15 hasn't had any staffing issues, with only one teacher change for a student whose parent requested going from virtual to in-person learning, she said.
In District 300, about 64% of students chose in-person learning. The district held in-person classes for students in kindergarten through third grade in October, but it reversed course and reverted to fully remote learning during a statewide COVID-19 surge in early November.
At the time, officials said one classroom was closed for an outbreak -- defined as two confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections occurring within 14 calendar days among individuals in the same classroom, team or club.
"We definitely had some evidence of school transmission among staff at several of our buildings," Superintendent Fred Heid said.
The district currently is fully staffed, Heid said. "So right now, knock on wood, we're in a pretty good place," he said.
District 300 started providing COVID-19 weekly testing of employees with roughly 95% participation, he said. So far, one asymptomatic individual tested positive before the return of students to classrooms; the district is providing the testing through spring break, he said.
"I can put every precaution and procedure in place that we have and make every investment that we have, but ultimately it comes down to human behavior," Heid said.
Naperville Unit District 203 was working on plans to offer COVID-19 voluntary tests weekly to all staff members and secondary-level students participating in hybrid learning. In District 15, symptomatic staff members can use a take-home saliva testing kit that is mailed overnight to a California-based lab with results expected in 36 hours.
Students were back Jan. 4 for in-person learning at Oak Grove Elementary District 68, among the few that opened for in-person learning at the beginning of the school year. The district hasn't had any staffing issues, Superintendent Allison Sherman said.
The district comprises one school with more than 900 students. Currently, 68% of students are learning in person and 32% are learning remotely.
The district hasn't had to close any classrooms due to COVID-19, Sherman said. As for the return to school, "things are going well," she said. "We had a few cases among students and staff that occurred over break, but those individuals never returned on Jan. 4, so there was never a need to quarantine anyone within our system."
Sherman pointed out the Lake County Health Department's current guidance mirrors the CDC's guidance regarding the five key mitigation strategies, which she says the district has implemented since August.
"With the pivoting guidance from the health department based on these indicators, more and more districts are feeling confident in coming back with strong mitigation strategies."
School officials also are working with county health departments on plans to vaccinate teachers in the next round of inoculations.
• Daily Herald staff writers Lauren Rohr and Mick Zawislak contributed to this report.