This fall, staff and students will return to school for full-time in-person learning. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

With Illinois schools fully reopening this fall, many administrators are still figuring out what safety measures they need to take before welcoming staff and students back on campus. Earlier this month, roughly 300 superintendents signed a letter, asking state and public health leaders to offer more clarity and guidance on keeping school employees and students safe during this upcoming school year. 

The Cook County Department of Public Health (CCDPH) has now released a list of safety guidelines, set by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and adopted by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). 

At the top of the list, Cook County health officials are encouraging staff and students who are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to get the shot. The two-dose Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is available for children 12 years and older. 

“Vaccination remains the leading public health strategy to prevent COVID-19,” county health officials said in a news release issued July 23. 

Schools cannot legally require their employees or students to be vaccinated, as vaccines were only authorized for emergency-use by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, said Karin Sullivan, a director of communications and community relations at Oak Park and River Forest High School, in a previous interview with Wednesday Journal. 

The CCDPH also proposed that masks should be worn by all unvaccinated individuals, including children as young as 2 years old, while indoors. When unvaccinated people wear their masks correctly and consistently – that means masks go over the nose and mouth – they are able to protect themselves and others, county health officials said in the release. 

Other recommendations include practicing social-distancing, promoting good hygiene such as frequent handwashing or using hand sanitizer, and increasing the schools’ ventilation systems to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus. Schools are still encouraged to host testing programs, as a way to monitor COVID-19 cases or outbreaks.   

The CDC also updated the definition of “close contacts,” people who were at least six feet away from an individual with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes in a 24-hour period. Under the new guidance, staff and students who are masked and within three to six feet away of a confirmed case are no longer considered “close contacts.” 

“Consistent and correct mask use will decrease the number of students needing to quarantine at home in case of exposure,” county health officials said. “With masking, fewer students will miss in-person instruction.” 

At this time, officials Oak Park Elementary School District 97 and River Forest School District 90 are finalizing their plans around safety mitigations and plan to share them with families in the coming weeks. 

Patricia Wernet and Griff Powell, co-interim superintendents at District 97, said they are working with the Oak Park Public Health Department to put the right protocols in place, especially as new COVID-19 cases have popped up in the community. 

Oak Park public health officials have recently reported 57% of residents – nearly two-thirds – have been vaccinated. In a joint statement, Wernet and Powell said they also just learned from Oak Park health officials that their community is currently experiencing a “moderate level of transmission.” 

“We believe that it’s more important than ever for our community to work together to remain vigilant of the virus and do everything possible to keep our transmission levels low,” Wernet and Powell said.  

As of July 25, River Forest has had a total of 837 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and 61% of River Forest residents have gotten vaccinated, according to reports by CCDPH.

 Like Wernet and Powell, District 90 Superintendent Ed Condon recently reached out to families to share the progress of school reopening plans. In an email to D90 families, Condon wrote how he and his colleagues are reviewing all the guidelines carefully, piecing together a plan that meets the needs of their staff and students.  

“We ask for your understanding and patience as we strive to develop school reopening plans that are thoughtful and appropriate,” he said in an email to families. “We will communicate all planned protocols to the D90 community as timely as possible.” 

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