Oak Park-River Forest High School in Oak Park

Later this month, hundreds of students in Oak Park and River Forest will be returning to school for full-time, in-person learning. As district officials from the two communities prepare to release their plans on COVID-19 for the school year, parents are weighing in on existing guidance that could help keep their children, as well as staff and other students, safe. 

Parents like Brian Straw and Josh Vanderberg hope schools continue to require staff and students to mask up. Both fathers of young children have seen other parents on Facebook arguing for relaxed mask rules in schools.  

“Even if you’re over the pandemic, the pandemic isn’t over yet,” said Straw, of Oak Park. “Both of my children are under 12. They can’t get vaccinated.” 

Vaccinations against COVID-19 are free and available to anyone over the age of 12. Straw, who has a 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter, said wearing masks can help slow the spread of the coronavirus and is “such a small task, particularly for children who have become very used to it at this point.”

On July 28, the Oak Park Department of Public Health reported 25 new cases of COVID-19 and began recommending residents — even those who are fully vaccinated — to wear masks indoors. The surge of new COVID-19 cases “likely include some breakthrough cases among fully vaccinated individuals,” according to the health department’s site. 

Oak Park health officials explained that fully vaccinated people with COVID-19 experience “mild” symptoms, do not require hospitalization and are often asymptomatic. But they warned that the delta variant of the virus is highly contagious and it is important to think about those who are not eligible to get a vaccination. 

“[Wearing] masks is a given,” said Vanderberg, an Oak Park resident. Only one of his three children was old enough to get the shot and recently received the first of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine.  

As the new school year approaches, Vanderberg and Matthew Arata, another Oak Park parent, said they are keeping an eye on how administrators handle quarantine measures, determine close contacts, and accommodate students, faculty and families impacted by the coronavirus. Arata said he wondered if there’s a way for school officials to help encourage families to keep their children home if they are not feeling well for reasons other than COVID-19.   

Students can only access remote learning if they are unable to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and are under quarantine by a local public health department, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. Students have to meet both criteria to qualify. 

Arata said he would like to see if school officials could create a new, “reasonable” policy to help students when they are absent from school to “continue learning as best as they can.” 

In early July, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its safety guidelines for K-12 schools, including a new definition on “close contacts.” The CDC previously identified “close contacts” as individuals within at least 6 feet of a person with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes in a 24-hour period. In schools, staff and students who are correctly masked and within 3-6 feet away from a confirmed case are no longer considered “close contacts.” 

Other Oak Park parents have joined Vanderberg and spoken up for the need to educate families on getting vaccinated. Robin Kalish, a mother from Oak Park and a pediatrician, encourages local parents, caregivers and other adults to reach out and talk to their physicians or other medical professionals about COVID-19 vaccines. 

Last week, Oak Park health officials reported that only 56% of Oak Parkers — roughly two-thirds of the population — have been fully vaccinated. Those numbers are lower than communities such as Evanston where 78% of residents are fully vaccinated. Over in River Forest, only almost 62% of its population is fully vaccinated.  

“I think what we need to do in Oak Park is double down on the vaccine,” Vanderberg said. “I would really love to see leaders of the school districts work together in concert to get everybody vaccinated.” 

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