Students hold up signs on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, during a protest outside Oak Park and River Forest High School over the school's new ban of extracurricular activities due to a COVID-19 case surge. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Just four days after Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 officials announced their plans to cancel all sports and after-school activities through winter break, they rescinded that decision Monday afternoon but not without implementing new COVID-19 guidelines.

 School district officials’ initial decision to pause school-related activities came from concerns of a recent rise in positive Covid cases among students and employees. Last week, the district reported 17 new COVID-19 cases, identifying over 50 close contacts per case. 

According to a schoolwide email sent Dec. 6, Superintendent Greg Johnson outlined three new measures, which are set to remain in place through the end of this semester. Among them, students and employees must now wear KN95 or surgical face masks; the Oak Park Department of Public Health is providing the district masks for those who do not have their own and will be made available to them upon entering the building. Those masks are reusable. 

Johnson is also asking students who have not yet opted in for COVID-19 saliva testing to sign up via Skyward, a database for schools, and for those who have already signed up to actually participate in the testing. A second round of testing will take place Dec. 9 during physical education classes, Johnson said. 

OPRF spokeswoman Karin Sullivan said getting students to show up for weekly Covid testings at school has been a challenge. Under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s guidelines, only unvaccinated school employees are required to test weekly for COVID-19. But testing is voluntary and open to all students regardless of their vaccination status, although those who are unvaccinated are urged to test, according to the school site. 

Roughly 2,000 students opted to get tested for COVID-19, Sullivan said, but the reality is only 100 to 200 students come each week for testing. Total enrollment at OPRF is 3,364 according to the state’s school report card. Unlike last year, when students were offered the option to attend in-person or online classes, those who chose the former were required to be tested for Covid, but that is not the case this year, she said. 

“It’s very clear we cannot require students [to test for COVID-19], and there are no consequences if a student has opted in and doesn’t show up,” she said.

As far as masking goes, Sullivan said that while a majority of students have been “quite good” about wearing their masks properly – nose and mouth covered – there are some students who need reminders. 

“What we feel we’re seeing is just pandemic fatigue overall. People are just tired of everything that goes along with coping with Covid,” she said. 

In the Dec. 6 email, Johnson noted some changes to students’ lunch period. In an effort to encourage them to “spread out” more during lunch, the district is allowing all students to eat off campus for the next two weeks only. Before, juniors and seniors were only allowed to eat lunch outside of school grounds, said Sullivan. Also, apart from the north cafeteria, the west gym and the fieldhouse will serve as makeshift lunchrooms. 

Sullivan said finding the right place to accommodate students during lunch has posed another obstacle. 

“We’ve heard a lot: ‘Can’t you just move lunch into bigger spaces?’” said Sullivan. “What we’re doing this week is we have taken over gyms for lunch, and that is losing instructional space. Again, it’s affecting our P.E. division, and they’re rolling with it. They have been fabulous, but we had to determine ‘Can we take these instructional spaces for lunch?’ and ‘What does that look like?’” 

Acknowledging ‘difficult days’ 

Sullivan also explained the district’s thought-process behind its initial decision to pause activities, citing other letters Johnson sent to families over the weekend. In those letters, Johnson told families the 17 new COVID-19 cases that cropped up last week were a “concerning uptick,” and that the Oak Park Department of Public Health “directed us” to halt all extracurricular activities, including sports practices and competitions Dec. 4 through winter break. 

“We understand that this announcement is disappointing and frustrating, especially as our extracurricular activities were just getting underway,” Johnson wrote in an email Dec. 3. “However, protecting the health and safety of our entire community is our utmost priority.” 

Sullivan told the Journal, “That was our most immediate action we could take given this very concerning rise in cases,” adding that she and other school officials began thinking, “Where can we limit the density in gathering?” 

That decision received pushback from students and parents, prompting a protest outside OPRF on Dec. 4. Those in attendance, many of whom were student athletes, were upset and voiced their concerns, noting that extracurricular activities are more than just games or performances; they are essential outlets for  mental health and social wellness. 

A petition on Change.org – which has garnered more than 1,900 signatures – made its rounds on social media over the weekend, where signers are demanding the Board of Education and administration reconsider the cancellation of extracurricular activities and hold a public hearing to disclose the information leading to the initial decision. 

District 200 board members are to host a special meeting Dec. 7, after the Journal’s print deadline, to discuss COVID-19 mitigations. 

“I know the past few days have been extremely difficult,” Johnson wrote in the Dec. 6 email, inviting  families to attend the special board meeting. “Thank you to all our students, teachers, and staff for all your efforts to help get our students back to the sports and activities that they love. You truly do represent those things that are best.”

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