Anthony Clark thought he did enough to dodge the coronavirus.
Clark, a community activist and teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School, followed all the guidelines: He wore masks, practiced social distancing and was careful around gatherings. He got vaccinated – and received a COVID-19 booster shot.
Just two weeks into the new school year, Clark tested positive for COVID-19.
“I’ll be honest, I’m surprised,” he said.
Clark, who is immunocompromised, said he hasn’t been inside his classroom – let alone the school building – in almost a year. Clark has Behcet’s disease, a rare disorder that causes inflammation of blood vessels, and because of his medical condition, he was able to teach remotely last year, even after OPRF opened up for hybrid learning in the spring.
“As somebody who, of course, went out occasionally for nonprofit work or community work or you know, social gatherings, I managed to not catch Covid for about a year and a half,” Clark said. “It’s surprising to me. Literally, [it’s the] second week of being back at work, back in the building, being vaccinated, having the booster shot, I caught Covid.”
So Clark went into isolation. Clark, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 days ahead of Labor Day weekend, said he missed a week of work and used up all his sick days, leaving him unable to do what he loves the most: being with his students.
And Clark isn’t alone in this experience. With schools fully reopened this year, many teachers like Clark, as well as other faculty, staff and students, continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic, especially as the state’s Covid protocols for schools remain in flux.
In the past three weeks, school district officials statewide were hit with two major changes: Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a vaccine mandate for all school employees and college students, and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) voted to provide remote learning for students who are quarantined after being potentially exposed to COVID-19 in school. ISBE previously offered remote learning for students who are ineligible to get vaccinated and were under quarantine orders by a local public health department or the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The OPRF District 200 Board of Education also unanimously approved a memorandum with its Faculty Senate, a collective bargaining unit, during a Sept. 9 special meeting. Among the items listed in the memorandum, employees who are fully vaccinated or are exempt from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine will be placed on paid administrative leave if they test positive for the virus.
The memorandum also stated that teachers “will provide audio and video observational access to their classrooms” for students. That means students could livestream their classes, but they may be unable to participate in the class in real time. Teachers can also choose whether to make their classes available for livestreaming, if “appropriate to the instructional needs.”
Prior to the memorandum, students in quarantine would log into Google Classroom, an online platform that contains lessons, homework and links to resources. The virtual classroom has “explicit step-by-step instructions” for students to follow while at home, said Laurie Fiorenza, director of student learning.
Fiorenza, who spoke to Wednesday Journal before the memorandum became public, said that students could schedule an hour of online tutoring with a substitute teacher during the school day and look forward to offering another layer of support.
For Ray, a junior at OPRF who did not want his last name used, managing schoolwork while under quarantine was stressful. Ray, who was identified as a close contact during the beginning of the school year, said he was put under quarantine for almost two weeks and struggled to keep up with homework.
Ray said he decided not to use the online tutoring service because he felt that the tutors he worked with before only helped him with his homework. Ray said what he needed was someone to teach the lesson.
“I can get anybody to [help me with my homework,” he said. “I can ask my sisters or my mom for help. It’s the fact that I’m sitting here trying to piece together the work that I should have been in class [for], listening when they were explaining how to do it.”
One student’s story
Ray went on and opened up about being named a ‘close contact.’ According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a ‘close contact’ is someone who has been within six feet of a person with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes over a 24-hour period. In schools, students are no longer considered close contacts if they have stayed 3 to 6 feet away from a student with Covid – and if they and the student with Covid are both masked correctly and consistently, the CDC reported. The exception does not apply to staff, teachers and other adults.
District policy stated that students and staff who have been fully vaccinated and are exposed to COVID-19 do not need to quarantine as long as they remain asymptomatic. Under the Oak Park Department of Public Health, those who are unvaccinated and exposed to the virus must quarantine for two weeks, or up to 14 days. Staff and students, however, have the option of taking a BinaxNOW COVID-19 rapid test on the last four days of quarantine. If staff and students test negative for Covid, they can come back to the school on that day.
Ray said he had just scheduled a vaccination appointment when the school notified him as a “close contact.”
Ray said he and his mother were hesitant about the vaccine and heard all kinds of stories about people getting blood clots, after getting the shot, or that the nurses who administer the vaccine “stick the whole needle in your arm.” Ray said that his mother also felt that the vaccine was just another “move for the government to be able to track everybody.”
Patrick Hardy, OPRF’s executive director of equity and student success, said Ray and his mother are not the only ones who are vaccine-hesitant and have expressed similar concerns. While 79% of students at OPRF are fully vaccinated, there are still those who remain on the fence about getting the shot.
Hardy said he’s heard from students, especially from Black students, who are hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine for very “specific” reasons. Some students are overwhelmed by the amount of information on the vaccine – “They said, ‘There’s just too much,’” Hardy said – while others felt that the information they needed was buried underneath other facts.
Hardy, who is Black, said other Black students have cited the Tuskegee Study, an experiment that followed hundreds of rural Black men in Alabama with syphilis and were ultimately denied treatment.
“‘The vaccine is free. When has anything been free for Black people?’” said Hardy, recalling a conversation with one student.
Echoing Hardy, Ray said his mother, both of whom are Black, felt like getting the COVID-19 vaccine was just another way for the government to exercise control.
Hardy shared students are already aware of the consequences of being unvaccinated, and what they’re looking for is someone they can talk to about their beliefs and concerns.
“I’m not looking to convince you of anything. I want you to feel welcome in this building, to hold those beliefs and hold them strongly, because they’re grounded in something real that happens to our people in this country and continues to happen,” Hardy said. “I think just being affirming, being welcoming and being a good listener was what they needed to feel comfortable.”
“… They know where my office is,” said Hardy. “They got all the information. And all I say is, if there’s something I can do to support you, please let me know. And that’s the end of that.”
For more information on the COVID-19 vaccine, visit the CDC’s website https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/index.html. To schedule a vaccination appointment locally, visit www.oprfhs.org/covid-19/index-clone and click the tab “Ways to Get Vaccinated.”