Back to school, not totally back to normal: Here's how it'll work in some suburban districts
Suburban students heading back to school this week for the first day of classes will see some semblance of normalcy restored.
Of course, the biggest change is the resumption of full, in-person classes for all students, except those seeking medical exemptions for continuing with remote learning.
Yet, it's still not quite a typical school year amid ongoing COVID-19 restrictions with the highly contagious delta variant spreading rapidly statewide.
Some pandemic remnants -- universal masking, social distancing, and hand washing/sanitizing -- persist. And still no high-fives, fist bumps, hugs or handshakes allowed for students reuniting with teachers and peers.
"The big excitement is we are going to have students back in school," said Peter Gill, spokesman for Mundelein Elementary District 75 and Mundelein High School District 120.
Nearly 3,700 students in both districts will resume classes Thursday.
"Our goal was to try to get as many students as possible in the buildings," Gill said. "We don't know the exact numbers of enrollment. Most of them are expected back."
Gill said the focus this year is to "restart, restore and reconnect."
"You might not see the high-fives and the hugs, but I think you will see a lot of people excited to see each other," he said. "Of course, there's mitigation. (But) there will be opportunities for the kids to get outside (for a mask break or classes)."
Mundelein High School will have an open campus policy for students to go home or off campus for lunch.
"That may alleviate some of the concerns about (having) all these kids in the cafeteria," Gill said.
There are several silver linings this year, including the resumption of fall sports, after-school activities and clubs, and visitors being allowed back into schools.
Students also will be able to again share materials, use lockers and playgrounds, enjoy 30-minute recesses and eat hot meals served in cafeterias.
"We're planning to have meals indoors," said Ben Grey, assistant superintendent of innovative learning and communications for Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59. "We obviously are working to follow the guidelines of physical distancing as much as possible when kids eat. We do have a little bit more freedom this year than we did last year."
Classes begin Wednesday for the district's roughly 6,400 students.
Revised health guidelines for schools recommend 3 to 6 feet of physical distancing between students' bodies -- with maximum separation urged for when they are unmasked during lunch periods.
"It gives us clarity," Grey said of the state's masking mandate and distancing guidelines.
Quarantining requirements also have eased, with health officials redefining what constitutes a close contact. Anyone within 3 to 6 feet of a student who tests positive for COVID-19 doesn't automatically have to quarantine, provided all parties were masked. Students who come into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID can "test to stay" in school; they must test negative.
Many districts, including Elgin Area School District U-46, are eliminating self-certification requirements for students and employees and asking them instead to monitor their health before coming to campus.
U-46 and many other districts will provide SHIELD COVID-19 testing for families who are unvaccinated or whose children are not yet eligible for vaccines.
Families are requested to share vaccination status, but it is not mandatory, U-46 spokeswoman Mary Fergus said.
"Just about everyone is coming back," Fergus said of the district's roughly 37,000 students who begin classes Monday.
Parents and students are excited about the resumption of full athletic programs and after-school extracurricular activities, said Lisa Small, superintendent of Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 where classes begin Thursday for nearly 12,000 students.
"Our numbers are looking really good for fall sports," Small said.
There, school assemblies likely will be smaller or held outdoors, students will be more spread out during lunch periods across open areas in buildings, and cafeterias will serve a greater variety of foods for lunches, she said.
"To the student, it is going to feel very normal, and that's what we're shooting for," Small said.