Oak Park's public health director Theresa Chapple-McGruder speaks to the crowd 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

The District 200 High School Board held a special meeting last week to discuss school officials’ swift decision to resume all activities just days after announcing they would be cancelled through winter break and enduring a tumultuous weekend with pushback from parents and students. They also discussed the treatment of Oak Park’s public health director during that pushback.

Oak Park and River Forest High School Superintendent Greg Johnson opened the Dec. 7 meeting by providing the board with a brief overview of what led to the district’s initial decision to press pause on after-school programs. 

Adhering to the details he outlined in schoolwide emails sent to families, Johnson spoke about the recent rise of COVID-19 cases among students as the cause of the cancellation. 

From Nov. 26 to Dec. 3, the district reported 17 new COVID cases, identifying 50-70 close contacts per case. The batch of infections reported Dec. 1 were epidemiologically linked and considered an outbreak, Johnson said. Multiple cases impacting at least 10% of teachers, students or staff “within a core group” are considered a school outbreak, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. A core group includes “individuals who were together during an exposure,” as defined by state health officials. Three cases within a specific core group can also be classified as a school outbreak. 

“Since the beginning of the school year, the overall COVID cases at OPRF have been relatively and consistently low, single digits week in and week out,” he said. 

Oak Park Public Health Director Theresa Chapple-McGruder told Wednesday Journal that the school’s COVID response team was not prepared to handle a “huge surge.” 

“It took them nearly a week to be able to even do contract tracing for all the children who were exposed in school,” said Chapple-McGruder, who attended the Dec. 7 meeting. “And during that week, we had more spread. We had more people who were exposed who should have been home.” 

In the Dec. 7 meeting, Johnson told the board he spoke to Chapple-McGruder, who offered a list of safety mitigations for the district to follow. Among the directives, she advised Johnson and other officials to increase students’ participation in COVID-19 saliva testing to 80%, find more options to create a socially-distanced lunch, and up the ante on masking. The option to cancel after-school activities popped up after positive cases continued to escalate within the first few days of December. 

“Removing activities was not at all my first option,” Chapple-McGruder told the Journal in a separate interview. “… We have to address where overcrowding is happening, where lack of social distancing is happening, and the areas that are most likely leading to spread. We have to figure out how to address at least something — one of these three areas — and [cancelling extracurricular activities] was the one the school felt like they could address immediately.”

 As board members questioned Johnson and Chapple-McGruder about next steps and safety guidelines, some voiced concerns about how Chapple-McGruder, who is a Black woman, was treated during a recent protest rally. On Dec. 4, the day after the district announced the temporary suspension of activities, D200 parents and students gathered outside the high school and protested the school officials’ decision.  

“Our public health director has been threatened and harassed,” said board member Kebreab Henry, adding that the individuals who attended the rally Saturday were an “embarrassing crowd” and he and other elected officials needed to denounce those actions. 

Video footage of the rally captured by Wednesday Journal staff showed attendees shouting over Chapple-McGruder, who appeared at the rally with Johnson to publicly address why activities were cancelled. 

Oak Park resident and parent Amy Butler told the Journal, “You could just hear people booing, screaming [and] yelling” at Chapple-McGruder during the rally. Butler, who stood near the middle of the crowd, said she heard one person calling Chapple-McGruder an “idiot” while others shouted expletives as Chapple-McGruder responded to questions. 

“I actually was kind of wanting to hear their responses, to know what the concern was, why they shut down the extracurriculars; we need to hold our public officials accountable,” she said. “I think we deserve those answers, but we couldn’t even get those answers. I couldn’t hear anything that they were saying.”

Johnson said to the board that some of the mitigations Chapple-McGruder recommended were already in place to a degree but “exceedingly challenging to pull off.” In particular, he said bringing students’ participation rate for saliva testing was going to be tough. In a previous interview with Wednesday Journal, district spokesperson Karin Sullivan noted that 60% of students (about 2,000) have voluntarily signed up for testing. 

Under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s orders, testing is only mandatory for unvaccinated employees.

In the last week, students have been getting tested for COVID during physical education classes, Johnson said. On Dec. 6, 1,650 students were tested for COVID-19, and 20 positive cases were identified. Roughly 1,300 students were tested Dec. 9, and three additional cases were identified.  

Sullivan said using class time is only a temporary solution, and district officials will need to find another way to implement and encourage testing for students. She added that while the district has converted the field house and west gym for additional cafeteria space, the south cafeteria has undergone major renovations and will be available to students when they return to classes in January after winter break. 

On the issue of masking, the health department has supplied district students and employees with KN95 face masks. 

During public comment, OPRF parent Jennifer Flodin told board members she and her husband organized the protest rally “from our hearts” because they were “devastated for the kids.” Flodin said she had “no idea what color” or who Chapple-McGruder is and that half of the speakers at the rally were people of color. 

“It was not a white privileged, a white-everywhere rant against the school board or the department of health,” she said. 

As Chapple-McGruder reflected on the rally, she remained candid about her experience serving as a public health director in Oak Park over the last seven months. 

“I am shocked at the level of hostility,” she said. 

She and her family previously lived in Oak Park prior to joining the Oak Park Department of Public Health in April, and what she experienced then as a community member and now as a Black public health director are vastly different. 

“I lived in Oak Park from 2005 to 2009,” she said. “I bought my first home in Oak Park. I got married in Oak Park. I adopted my first child while living in Oak Park. Oak Park has kind of been [that] place that every time my husband and I moved to a new city, a new area, we compared it to Oak Park. 

“So when I had the opportunity to move back to Oak Park, I was extremely excited. … What I can say is that my experiences my first four years here that first time when I was just a resident, just a student, just a normal person, it’s much different than my experience here [now] being a Black woman in a position of authority.” 

Join the discussion on social media!