Rising COVID-19 rates statewide prompt reopening delays, setbacks among Illinois’ largest school districts

An empty hallway in a Chicago school.

Among Illinois’ 10 largest school districts, eight have paused plans to reopen school buildings or reverted to virtual learning amid a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Many school districts across the state had proposed to shift the youngest students from remote learning to some in-person instruction later this month. With cases on the rise — even higher than they were when schools abruptly closed in March — it no longer seems possible. Instead, almost 500,000 students in those eight districts will continue to do virtual learning. That accounts for more than a quarter of Illinois’ public school students.

Only Elgin and Rockford, the state’s second and third largest districts respectively, have brought students into school buildings. At the beginning of the school year, Rockford allowed hybrid-learning for students and Elgin brought in Pre-K to second grade students this week.

Chicago Public Schools, the state’s largest district, has not yet set a return date for pre-kindergartners and special education students, who were supposed to return later this month, as officials warn of a spike in the city. 

Algonquin Community Unit School District 300, a district in the northwest suburbs of Chicago that serves 20,000 students, planned to bring in pre-kindergarten to fifth grade students into school buildings —K-3 students were in-person for six days. Last week, the district decided that all grades will go back to remote learning through the Thanksgiving break.

“We’ve seen rapid increases in a total number of our staff being impacted by COVID-19. This was one of the reasons why the decision was made to not continue elementary in-person,” superintendent Fred Heid said at a school board meeting Tuesday, adding that more than 10 schools were under watch for possible positive cases.

The state’s public health department considers an “outbreak” at a school when there are five or more cases among staff and students who don’t live in the same household. 

Reid continued, “We closed multiple classrooms due to outbreaks in our classroom buildings. At the time we had 52 staff quarantined of which 35 were currently in classroom teachers so they were no longer able to be physically in the classroom delivering instruction to students.”

Marty Walshik, a parent of two children who attend schools in Algonquin, told the Algonquin’s board of education at the same meeting that it should be more transparent about how decisions are made about when to reopen or close school buildings. 

“I’m asking you to be honest with the public, the community, myself, and with our kids. If you’re going to make a decision, it stays in this room and is presented with the fact that you have at hand here. You need to present it to us so we understand why you made those decisions,” he said. 

Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said it’s a good approach for school districts to keep younger children at home as cases are spiking across the state. Before cases went up, data shows that younger children, below the age of 10, tended to clear the virus more quickly and are less likely to spread it to one another. 

“The challenge that we face right now with such widespread community spread and high rates of illness in Illinois and nationwide, is that these young children live in households with adults. To the extent that the adults are circulating the most likely place for transmission for younger children based on data that I’ve seen has been through a household exposure,” said Carnethon.

School districts throughout the state have not made plans on when to bring back middle and high school students to school buildings. Carnethon recommended that school districts wait until positivity rates decrease before school districts bring in another population of students. 

“With [cases] surging and recommendations from the Illinois Department of Public Health, that we all reduce our circulation in society and in our community so that we can bring down rates. Introducing education for through 12th graders, right now, would really run contrary to that,” said Carnethon.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who issued a statewide school closure order in the spring, has said the decision to reopen school buildings or stay virtual is up to individual school districts. The state has put additional restrictions on bars and restaurants in recent weeks as COVID-19 rates and hospitalizations rise.

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