In six weeks, Oak Park Elementary School District 97 plans to fully reopen, welcoming staff and students back on campus for in-person learning. District 97, which is home to eight elementary schools and two middle schools, will be among hundreds of school districts across the state required to reopen under a resolution adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE).
But the state’s guidance around reopening has left co-interim superintendents, Patricia Wernet and Griff Powell, along with hundreds of other superintendents, asking more questions.
“We need guidance that meets the safety needs of our students and our staff and also allows for the highest quality (of) education (for) our students, as they return to school for in-person learning,” Wernet said. “The sooner, the better that we receive that.”
On June 24, Wernet was one of nearly 300 superintendents across the state who signed a letter to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and ISBE State Superintendent Carmen Ayala, asking for clarifications on social distancing in the classrooms and school buildings or whether there will be different quarantine restrictions for unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals.
Superintendents also wanted to know if employees and students would need to share whether they are vaccinated or not with schools and if school officials are expected or allowed to even ask that information from them, according to the letter. They also asked if schools would have to make COVID-19 vaccinations or testing mandatory for students and employees who want to participate in extracurricular activities.
At this point, schools cannot legally require staff and students to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccines are authorized under emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but have yet to receive full approval by the FDA, said Karin Sullivan, director of communications and community relations at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Powell, who officially stepped into his role as co-interim superintendent at D97 July 1, said that IDPH and ISBE released more instruction on schools’ transition from virtual to hybrid learning.
“The clearer they can be in terms of their set of guidelines, the easier it is,” said Powell, who just finished his post as an interim superintendent at DeKalb Community School District 428. “That’s what it fully comes to do. It’s just that simple.”
Requiring staff and students to wear masks was another issue raised in the letter.
That issue has become even more complicated, as Illinois moved forward with Phase 5 of its COVID-19 reopening plan last month. Under IDPH, people who are fully vaccinated are not required to wear masks indoors and outdoors or be six feet apart. Venues, businesses and organizations, however, can opt to call for masks and practice social distancing.
So far, state public health officials have stated that unvaccinated people should be masked in crowded settings, both indoors and outdoors, especially when youth are present, according to IDPH’s guidelines.
“We need a clear explanation and a rationale to justify the requirements of masks in school, so we can communicate that information,” Wernet said.
This past weekend, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provided an update on what schools should do for the next year. On the list, the CDC stated that staff and students should continue social distancing, staying at least three feet away from each other. People who are not fully vaccinated – which includes individuals as young as 2 years old – should remain masked inside the buildings. Masks should also be worn properly (covering the nose and the mouth). The CDC also reminded that if staff and students feel sick, they should stay home.
Like Wernet and Powell, Greg Johnson, incoming superintendent at Oak Park and River Forest High School, expressed similar concerns. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, Johnson’s predecessor, joined Wernet and Powell in signing the letter before her tenure ended. OPRF, which pulls in roughly 3,200 students and over 200 staff, is expected to open Aug. 16 for the first day of school.
“As we stand right now, exactly how we will get everyone back in the building is unclear until we get this information,” Johnson said in a statement sent to Wednesday Journal. Pruitt-Adams, whose last day with Oak Park and River Forest High School was June 30 and is now retired, was not available for immediate comment.
Ed Condon, superintendent at River Forest School District 90, shared that he, too, is waiting for any additional details from ISBE and IDPH. District 90, which is made up of two elementary schools and one middle school, will open Aug. 25 for the first day of school.
While Condon did not sign the letter, District 90 officials presented their own set of guidelines for reopening to its school board in a meeting last month.
“These plans will focus on safe operations, the delivery of high-quality instruction for all students and a focus on strong social-emotional supports for students, staff, and families,” said Condon in a statement sent to the Journal. “D90 students and families can be assured that additional details will be provided once we have received communication from ISBE.”
But playing the waiting game is hard, Powell said.
“Not knowing what they (safety protocols) are is the only difficulty,” he said. “If we know what they are, planning is a lot easier.”