District 97 administration building (File)

It’s been about a month since Oak Park School District 97 fully reopened, welcoming thousands of students back into classrooms. In that time, district officials, like many across the state, have dealt with a constant shift in COVID-19 guidelines, including a new vaccine mandate with pending deadlines for school employees.

Now officials are hit with another hurdle: Parents are questioning the district’s quarantine policy and the definition of a “close contact” and wondering what support quarantined children will receive during remote learning.

The conversation over the district’s quarantine protocol began two weeks ago, after a student at Mann Elementary School tested positive for COVID-19. Twenty-four students were identified as close contacts and immediately placed under a two-week quarantine, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Some parents like Kate Odom said this case has been a source of contention and raised concerns over the district’s quarantine policy, which follows recommendations set by the Oak Park Department of Public Health and other agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The student who tested positive was part of a daycare program run by an outside organization that uses Mann as a site, Odom said. The daycare program is operated by Hephzibah Children’s Association, a longtime nonprofit in Oak Park, that has partnered with Mann over the years to provide child care and after-school activities.

Odom, along with other parents, have argued that since the daycare program takes place inside the school building and follows the district’s safety measures, the students affiliated with that positive case who were named close contacts should have been more carefully considered.

The CDC has defined a “close contact” as someone who was within 6 feet of a person with COVID for more than 15 minutes in a 24-hour period and advised closed contacts to stay at home for at least 14 days.

And the reason why they would have different social recommendations in a classroom setting during instructional time is because it’s thought to be a more controlled setting. Children are thought to be seated, quiet, listening, learning.

Theresa Chapple-McGruder

While that definition and recommendation still stands, the CDC has updated the rule to include an exception for K-12 students. Students in an “indoor classroom setting” will not be named close contacts if they stayed 3-6 feet away from the student with COVID and if they and the student with COVID are both masked “correctly and consistently,” according to the CDC’s directive. The exception, however, excludes school staff, teachers and other adults.

“There has been a lot of confusion between the differences of what’s considered a close contact within the ‘classroom setting’ versus [an] after-school and daycare setting,” said Odom, a mother of two D97 students, adding that Oak Park’s public health officials may be using the “strictest” definition of a close contact and quarantine process.

But Theresa Chapple-McGruder, Oak Park’s public health director, disagreed.

“The CDC is really clear about what a classroom setting is,” said Chapple-McGruder during a Sept. 9 Zoom call with dozens of parents from Mann, fielding questions on the positive case and other COVID-19-related inquiries. “They reaffirm that ‘classroom settings’ are defined as ‘instructional time in an actual classroom.’

“And the reason why they would have different social recommendations in a classroom setting during instructional time is because it’s thought to be a more controlled setting. Children are thought to be seated, quiet, listening, learning.”

The Zoom call, which was held on the evening of Sept. 9, was hosted by Mann Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) and also featured Mann Principal Hussain Ali.

Chapple-McGruder said the CDC’s exception is specific and doesn’t apply to other settings such as a lunchroom where students are unmasked and talking and eating or before- and after-school programs where students are more likely to play and engage in activities.

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