'Going to look normal': Many precautions will ease in schools even as COVID lingers

No more having to seat students 3 feet apart. No more mandatory universal masking in schools or COVID testing.

Thousands of suburban students are heading back to classrooms starting this week as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have eased along with mandates for social distancing and masking indoors.

Yet, health officials are concerned how school leaders will handle the full return to in-person learning amid lingering health concerns with new COVID variants and the threat of monkeypox spreading.

Updated health guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Department of Public Health recommends schools continue a variety of mitigations, such as hand-washing, sanitizing, masking and testing, depending on the COVID-19 community level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention evaluates community risk levels from low to high, taking into consideration COVID case rates, hospitalizations and use of intensive care beds.

“There is still quite a bit of COVID that's circulating,” said Michael Isaacson, executive director of the Kane County Health Department. “With the high use of home tests, it makes it challenging for us to get an accurate picture of how much COVID there is. We are still looking forward to a much more 'normal' school year this fall.”

The IDPH has given schools more detailed direction for evaluating symptomatic students and close contacts for exclusion, and on testing programs. School districts strongly are encouraged to follow the guidance, but the only actual requirement is that school personnel must be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 at least weekly.

Isaacson said health officials are encouraging schools to focus on having systems in place so they can quickly move to address outbreaks.

“We are not putting as much pressure on schools to track an individual case,” he said. “What we're looking at right now is a cluster of cases. That would be at least 10% of students and staff in a specific group — classroom, bus, sports team, after-school program — (testing positive).”

Three or more closely linked cases is the threshold that could trigger some action.

During the last two years of pandemic-affected schooling, there had been significant pushback in some suburban districts regarding masking. Yet that still is the best way of preventing the spread of the virus and provides “an additional layer of safety,” Isaacson said.

A sampling of suburban schools surveyed showed most will follow IDPH guidance and continue certain pandemic-era practices.

In Elgin Area School District U-46, masks will be encouraged but not required. The school district added staff for the 2021-22 school year to allow for smaller classrooms and more social distancing, and that same staffing level has been maintained for this school year to allow social distancing to the extent possible. The state's second-largest district's 37,000 students begin classes Aug. 16.

U-46 also currently does not have any vaccine clinics scheduled but likely will offer voluntary COVID and influenza vaccine clinics as a convenience for employees in the fall, said Jeff Judge, supervisor of the U-46 Health Services department.

U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders in his weekly message to families stressed that self-certification and monitoring of symptoms will be emphasized with students and employees.

According to the CDC, studies show 16% of infected students will not show symptoms, Sanders wrote.

“Thus, our best protection against COVID-19 continues to be wearing a mask, ensuring social distance, and washing hands,” he said.

Many districts still are working on what COVID-19 protocols they should continue implementing.

“Several COVID-19 mitigations will look similar to what was in place at the end of last year, while a few are proposed to be updated for the upcoming school year,” said Rebecca Latham, chief communications officer for Palatine Township Elementary District 15.

District officials will provide the school board an update on the COVID protocols for the upcoming school year at its meeting Thursday. School starts with a half-day Aug. 17 for the district's more than 12,000 students.

In Round Lake Area Unit District 116, officials said situational masking, such as in hallways or music class, might take effect if certain thresholds are exceeded based on the five-day rolling average of positive cases within each building. School starts Aug. 15 for the district's 6,800 students.

“If we get to a higher threshold, we may move to universal masking throughout the building,” spokeswoman Heather Bennett said. “Last year, we had a handful of times that we had universal masking, but there were some schools that never made it into situational masking. There is no required testing anymore for staff or students. So really, the masking is the one area that we're continuing with this year.”

But most everything else is “going to look normal like before the pandemic,” she said.

COVID-19 has moved into an endemic phase, which means communities are going to have to live with it, said Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, chief operating officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health.

“A major concern right now is that there are highly transmissible variants (the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of omicron),” Hasbrouck said. “We've had a very steep learning curve over the last two-plus years of all the things we need to do to reduce spread and mitigation strategies. We need to stay with it. If COVID is here to stay, then the prevention strategies need to be here to stay as well.”

  Kindergarten teacher Sugeily Rosario-Vera unpacks some of the new furniture for her classroom Thursday as she prepares for the return of students at Laurel Hill Elementary School in Hanover Park. Health experts say that though COVID-19 restrictions have eased, they encourage schools to continue masking and other safety protocols. Brian Hill/
  Fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Ocampo organizes some of the new desks Thursday as she prepares for the return of students at Laurel Hill Elementary School in Hanover Park. Classes will resume starting this week at some suburban schools with a semblance of normalcy. Brian Hill/
  Custodian Dennis Hicks installs a sign on Thursday as school employees prepare for the return of students at Laurel Hill Elementary School in Hanover Park starting Aug. 16. Brian Hill/
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