Why health and school officials say it's safer to send children to school full time now
Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, students exhibiting symptoms at school were isolated and sent home while school officials quarantined and disinfected affected classrooms and relocated classmates.
That process often put classrooms out of commission for three days and contributed to the need many districts felt to turn to remote learning.
Now, with improved disinfecting methods using electrostatic sprays and ultraviolet C light, classrooms can be sanitized within minutes so learning can resume with the least amount of disruption, said Kevin Quinn, director of maintenance and facilities for Mundelein High School.
"In 11 minutes, we can turn that room back to students, as opposed to three days," Quinn said.
Experts like Quinn say efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools, low community transmission rates and educators being inoculated against the virus are why thousands of suburban students can return to full in-person learning after spring break.
The Mundelein school can offer in-person instruction four days a week because of improved air filtration, ventilation, cleaning and disinfection protocols, as well as by restricting student movement and monitoring compliance with mask wearing and hygiene.
"You have to have ironclad procedures and mitigations ... and you have to just reinforce those," Quinn said. "There's a behavioral aspect that is huge. We have been vigilant."
The Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinois School Board of Education have relaxed social distancing rules from 6 feet to 3 feet for students and fully vaccinated school employees, while unvaccinated teachers are urged to remain 6 feet apart. Face coverings still are required and schools must continue contact tracing and isolating suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases, but they don't have to screen for certain symptoms, such as congestion, runny nose and abdominal pain.
"Data studied for these changes to the public health guidance examined transmissibility in children, data on transmissibility at 3 feet vs. 6 feet in controlled school environments with universal masking, and assessment of data on outbreaks in schools, including in areas where COVID-19 transmission was high," IDPH spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said.
State health officials eased the rules for in-person instruction based on recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization, as well as unpublished research from the Mayo Clinic, Arnold said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports virus transmission has been minimal in school settings where the proper protocols are consistently implemented. Less than 10% of COVID-19 cases nationwide have been among children and adolescents 5 to 17 years old, the CDC reports.
"When we are seeing transmission (among) children, it is primarily happening outside of the school setting," said Apryll Elliott, Kane County Health Department assistant director for communicable disease. "They are typically being infected from within their households or they are participating in some type of activity (social gatherings, traveling sports, congregating). In the school setting, it is much more of a controlled environment."
The CDC reports staff-to-staff transmission is more common than transmission from students to staff, staff to students or students to students.
A majority of suburban teachers and school employees being vaccinated adds another layer of protection, but Elliott said that ultimately how children and adults behave in communities will determine whether schools stay open.
With the change in social distancing rules for in-person learning, more students potentially could be exposed if someone brings the virus into schools, Elliott said. She cautioned against families becoming complacent and traveling during spring break.
"Children are doing a really good job of wearing their masks. Adults have more difficulty complying with masking in general," Elliott said. "As a community, we still have to do our part with masking, hand hygiene ... to make sure transmission in the community continues to go down."