Another year in education shaped by a global pandemic, there were moments in 2021 that felt like the year before. Some days felt like one big constant loop, as COVID-19 continued to take hold of almost every aspect of our lives.
But we remained hopeful, resilient.
We charged forward, bringing the lessons we learned in 2020 and seized the power of adaptability. Even when cases tapered off and vaccines became available for children and adults and we began gathering safely indoors, we braced ourselves for what’s to come. We knew COVID is unpredictable – and the pandemic’s not over. We’re not there just yet.
Over the course of this year, Wednesday Journal focused on families across Oak Park and River Forest. When schools fully reopened back in August, the Journal centered its coverage on how parents and their children alongside faculty and staff were adjusting to a new normal.
From masking policies to quarantine restrictions and vaccine education, we shared stories about how our communities came together – and at times, stood divided – when safety measures were placed. The Journal also shed light on school administrators, teachers and other employees who worked endlessly day in and day out to offer a network of support for families, and the students, themselves, who continued to grow, find their voice and carve out their own space in today’s world.
With 2022 peeking just around the corner, the Journal is looking back at the year that taught us how to carry on.
Working together – and fast
With state officials requiring schools to fully reopen this year, district officials in Oak Park and River Forest dashed to map out and expand their safety protocols for staff and students.
And those first few months of school were an adjustment: Masks were mandatory. Visitors were limited or not allowed inside school buildings. COVID-19 saliva testing programs were in such high demand across the state, pushing back the programs’ start dates. Quarantine guidelines and changes to public health officials’ definition of a “close contact” seemed to cause a point of contention for area families, who sought more test-back options.
On top of that, under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s directive, school employees and college students were among the groups of individuals required to vaccinate against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing. That meant, school administrators worked with their collective bargaining units and outlined the terms of their vaccination plans.
“Vaccination is still the leading strategy for protecting our community against COVID-19 and keeping our schools open for in-person learning,” spokesperson Amanda Siegfried told the Journal early on, addressing Oak Park District 97’s compliance with the governor’s vaccination orders.
A race to vaccinate
The COVID-19 vaccine became available to individuals, with Pfizer leading the way to include children as young as 5 years old. Since May, the Journal was there covering a series of vaccine clinics at River Forest School District 90, Oak Park School District 97, Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 and Concordia University Chicago.
Parents, students and school staff alike let us be part of their experience. Some even let us stand beside them, as they got the first dose of the two-shot Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Some students like OPRF’s Adam Dubina told the Journal how he helped his mom understand the benefits of the vaccine, while Concordia employee David Risch opened up about his fears of the vaccine’s side effects before deciding to go for it.
“I wanted to protect the students and employees here,” Risch said in an interview with Wednesday Journal. “In some ways, I probably got it maybe less for myself and more for the people around me to make sure I’ve reduced the risk of transmitting something.”
The fight for Priory Campus
Early this month, Fenwick High School entered into a purchase agreement with Dominican University for Priory Campus, closing the chapter on a long-awaited decision for an underused university property that held untapped possibilities. Fenwick, which also leased the athletic fields surrounding the Priory property from the Dominican Friars order, also announced its plans to purchase those fields, marking the Catholic high school’s expansion.
In June, DU announced plans to sell the Priory Campus, a 7.6-acre site in River Forest that was once home to the university’s graduate studies programs, and caught the attention of some potential buyers, including Fenwick and Oak Park and River Forest High School.
For reasons of confidentiality, the university’s commercial broker Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) would not disclose or confirm the names or number of entities that submitted letters of intent and eyed the parcel. The price of the land and buildings has yet to be publicly disclosed, Fenwick and DU officials previously told Wednesday Journal.
Both Fenwick and OPRF officials had broad plans for the property; OPRF thought buying Priory could alleviate the challenges it faced with future renovation projects on its main Scoville Avenue campus, while Fenwick eyed the lot for spiritual retreats or alumni gatherings or to expand its athletic or arts programs.
Calling for healing
In 2021, students from Oak Park and River Forest were still grappling with incidents of hate crimes, racial injustices and police brutality. A year later, they were still saying the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery – adding more names of innocent people of color who died at the hands of police or white supremacists.
Just a week after Derek Chauvin, a former Minnesota police officer was charged with murder in the death of Floyd, a Black man, Dominican University students gathered for a vigil to honor Floyd and many others and continued the conversations on racial injustice in America. They prayed and led a march on campus and around the River Forest neighborhood.
Elsewhere in Oak Park, some younger students also held their own discussions on racial politics. One of them was Christopher Denneen. Through a class podcast project, Denneen hosted a segment called “Politics with Teens” where he parsed the details of Chauvin’s trials and broke it down for his peers.
“I think it’s very important to educate people on current issues in our society,” he said. “These are really big issues that need changing, and kids are the next generation, and we need to know about those current issues.”
Efforts in equity
Having the “hard conversations” is not only integral to the healing process but a major factor in launching change. This year, the Journal explored how school districts were committing to their mission of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
For example, Wednesday Journal spoke to Asian American educators and residents in Oak Park who opened up about their racial and cultural experiences and the power behind Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s push for Asian American history as a curriculum requirement.
“You shouldn’t have to see yourself to feel like you belong here, but for some people, it does matter,” said Corinne Kodama, an Oak Park resident and founding associate director of Asian American Resource and Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It is so powerful for them to understand that they’re not alone – that they have a history in this country before they got here.”
In other stories, Oak Park School District 97 teachers and administrators talked about their equity curriculum and how the district encouraged families to engage in conversations about race with their children at home. Other examples of DEI efforts include OPRF’s decision to revamp its history, English and world languages courses for incoming freshmen, giving them all an opportunity to take on more rigorous lessons.
Students at OPRF also sought for their voices to be heard. Over the course of the year, a group of Jewish high school students fought for school officials to recognize their religious holidays, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, and Black and Brown students from the peer-led organization ROYAL (Revolutionary Oak Park Youth Action League) asked officials to provide more resources for mental health and emotional and academic support for students of color.
New year, new faces
This year, the Oak Park and River Forest community watched many of its top education leaders leave their schools: Dominican University President Donna Carroll, Oak Park’s District 97 Superintendent Carol Kelley and Oak Park and River Forest School District 200 Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams just to name a few.
Amidst the changes, we saw new teams emerge.
District 97 moved quickly to assemble its staff right before the 2020-21 school year closed. The district selected their interim employees in pairs: They hired co-interim Superintendents Griff Powell and Patricia Wernet, along with co-interim Beye School principals Cheryl Sullivan and Sheila Carter and co-interim human resources directors Cathie Pezanoksi and Tim Kilrea.
The search for a permanent District 97 superintendent is ongoing, and the school board is expected to select a candidate in early January.
District 200 also endured some changes, as Pruitt-Adams turned over her post to her mentee and former Assistant Superintendent Greg Johnson. The district also promoted and hired a list of school employees to take on various department roles.
Apart from that, Dominican University welcomed Glena Temple as president, after Carroll ended her 30-plus-year run.
Taking a note from Temple, being a leader in a school means leaning “into the work that needs to be done.”