Sophia Ramilo prepares to get the dose during a mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinic in the gymnasium at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park last August. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

A week has passed since schools in Oak Park and River Forest reopened after winter break, but district officials say the challenges to stay open for in-person learning continue, putting them, their employees and students in a bind. From staffing shortages to an upswing in COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant and a new recommendation from public health officials to shorten quarantine guidelines, local school communities are pivoting once more as the second semester begins.

Last week, 55 school employees called in absent, said Karin Sullivan, spokeswoman for Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200. Sullivan told Wednesday Journal that nearly half of the employees who were out, including some teachers, were impacted by COVID-19. Sullivan said she could not comment on why other employees were absent last week since workers are not obligated to disclose their reasons for missing work.

Sullivan and Oak Park District 97 spokeswoman Amanda Siegfried said their schools, along with many others nationwide, have struggled to hire substitute teachers prior to the pandemic. A 2021 story published in TIME cited lack of pay and unpredictable work schedules among the reasons why substitute teachers have been tough to find. The average median hourly wage for short-term substitute teachers is $14.12, reported the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Both D200 and D97 pay above the national average with wages ranging from $18 to $20 per hour, according to the districts’ websites. 

“We had a sub shortage before the pandemic, which has only been exacerbated,” Sullivan said. “As you can imagine, a lot of substitutes are retired teachers, so they’re older, and they’re reluctant to come into [the classroom] during the pandemic.”

So, the schools have had to make do.

Sullivan, Siegfried and River Forest District 90 spokeswoman Dawne Simmons said faculty and staff are working together to help each other and fill in the gaps. Siegfried, herself, said she is stepping in as a sub for lunch and recess at Irving School.

“We are trying to keep buildings open because that’s the directive that’s been given by the state,” Siegfried said. “It’s really challenging across all levels to do that – and we’re doing everything we can. … We’re deploying staff where we can to fill in, but it is extremely challenging and we’re going to continue to do everything we can to keep kids in school.”

Out of the three school districts, D97 was the only one that allowed two of its schools to begin the first week of second semester with remote learning. Students from Longfellow Elementary and Percy Julian Middle School returned to e-learning for two days last week because of an uptick in staff absences. 

Sullivan said D200, so far, has no plans of shutting down the school, unless they also encounter the same staffing problems as District 97.

Hatch, Lincoln faced Covid surges

School officials told the Journal they anticipated a surge of COVID-19 cases among students and staff upon their return to the building after a two-week holiday break and reassess their safety  measures as needed.

Siegfried said District 97 closed down Hatch and Lincoln elementary schools Jan. 6 in response to the high number of coronavirus cases, which were spotted early that week and stemmed from winter break. Students from those two schools shifted to online learning from Jan. 6 to Jan. 10 and were set to return for in-person learning Jan. 11.

Siegfried said the district’s decision to call an “adaptive pause” for Hatch and Lincoln was made in tandem with the Oak Park Department of Public Health, as school staff struggled to keep up with contact tracing. The pause gave school nurses and local health officials the chance to catch up and look closely at the ballooning cases. 

“It really was an unprecedented amount of work,” Siegfried said. “We have one school nurse at each building, and they were having to keep up with contact tracing to make sure that we did not have anyone coming back the next day and putting anyone else at risk.”

At this point, the district is planning to add a couple of mitigation measures including providing students with KN95 or surgical face masks and improving their classrooms’ air ventilation systems. Simmons said District 90 is also looking to offer their students  surgical face masks and plans on hosting another vaccination clinic for eligible district students and their families at Roosevelt Middle School from 4 to 8 p.m. Jan. 25. Details are forthcoming on the school website.

Over at District 200, officials already began supplying employees and students with surgical face masks and extended its off-campus lunch option for all students to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Also last week, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the Illinois School Board of Education (ISBE) announced they would adopt the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest recommendation and shorten the quarantine and isolation periods for staff and students. 

Over the holidays, the CDC announced that people with COVID-19 should isolate for five days, a departure from the initial 10-day period and wear their masks for another five days around others – if they are asymptomatic or no longer have signs of symptoms.

Illinois public health and education leaders have yet to release guidance for schools to follow, so the original 10-day quarantine period is still in effect, Sullivan, Siegfried and Simmons said.

Concordia, Dominican welcome back students

Dominican University and Concordia University Chicago faculty, staff and students are making their way back to campus this week, and university officials from both River Forest institutions are gearing up for their return from winter break.

Among DU’s safety plans, the university is hosting a COVID vaccine booster clinic on Jan. 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The clinic will be held in Springer Suites, one of DU’s buildings, and is open to eligible students and local residents, including families and children. A link to the registration form can be found online or through the university website at www.dom.edu.

Barrington Price, DU’s vice president of student success and engagement who also works with the university’s COVID-19  response team, said the school has reverted back to its “grab-and-go” approach at the dining halls and cafe. Seating in the dining halls is now limited to two to three people per table, as well.

Price and university spokeswoman Jessica Mackinnon said university employees and students are encouraged to use Campus Clear, a free app that helps individuals screen their symptoms. Self-testing COVID-19 kits are also available on campus.

Over at Concordia, faculty, staff and students were required to submit a negative COVID-19 test result dated between Jan. 4 and Jan. 9, regardless of vaccination status. CUC spokesman Eric Matanyi said the university is providing faculty, staff and students with free PCR tests on campus.

“We remain exceptionally flexible and ready to amend our operations accordingly as conditions warrant and in line with CDC/IDPH recommendations,” Matanyi wrote to the Journal in an email. “We continue to build on lessons learned over the past 22 months, as we respond to this ongoing pandemic.”

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