District 97 administration building (File)

Oak Park School District 97 students will return to in-person learning Jan. 18, after declaring a two-day adaptive pause last week due to a continuous rise in COVID-19 cases among staff and students. Students switched back to remote learning Jan. 13 and 14, and like most schools, D97 was closed Jan. 17 for Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day.

As of Jan. 10, district officials reported a total of 212 new cases among employees and students, placing approximately 518 into quarantine. School data also noted four district elementary schools – Holmes, Mann, Whittier and Irving – had outbreak cases. School outbreaks are defined as multiple cases impacting at least 10% of students, teachers or staff within a “core group,” or individuals “who were together during an exposure period,” according to state public health officials. Three COVID-19 cases within a “specified core group” can also qualify as an outbreak, state health officials said. 

“Due to a large number of new cases and critical staff absences, all of our schools are struggling to complete contact tracing and implement the required safety protocols for close contacts in a timely manner,” wrote co-interim Superintendents Griff Powell and Patricia Wernet in an email sent Jan. 12 to staff and families. “The adaptive pause will give the district additional time to complete this work and seek outside resources to support our mitigations moving forward.” 

Powell and Wernet explained that Illinois school districts can impose an adaptive pause if local school and public health officials are struggling to investigate and identify close contacts when a surge of new cases occurs – or if the lack of masking and/or testing creates “an unsafe environment.” During an adaptive pause, districts close their school buildings and students return to online learning. 

The interim leaders shared with families that the decision to call a pause on Jan. 13 and 14 was made “after serious, careful consideration.” The explosion of new COVID cases during the week of Jan. 10 impacted the district’s ability to keep up with contact tracing and played a major factor in employee absences. The two said they have teamed up once again with the Oak Park Department of Public Health to monitor the situation. 

“Our staff absences this week totaled 126 on Monday and 113 on Tuesday,” Powell and Wernet wrote, noting the absences accounted for more than 10% of the district’s staff. “These absences are impacting every level of our organization, from classroom teachers and administrators to lunchroom supervisors, teacher assistants, custodians, nurses and school support staff.” 

District 97 made a similar but smaller-scale move almost two weeks ago, as cases soared into the double-digits at Hatch and Lincoln Elementary Schools upon staff and students’ return from winter break. Longfellow Elementary and Julian Middle school students also briefly returned to e-learning during the week of Jan. 3 because of staffing shortages.

So far, the pause impacts students from kindergarten to eighth grade, Powell and Wernet said. The district plans on offering in-person learning for students with special needs, in the early childhood program at Whittier Elementary School or the pre-kindergarten program at Longfellow Elementary School. 

The district is currently looking for additional staff and volunteers to help in any of the schools. Open positions vary, ranging from substitute teachers to lunchroom supervisors and administrative assistants. For more information on employment opportunities, visit www.op97.org/hr/employment

“We know that an adaptive pause places a significant burden on our families,” Powell and Wernet wrote. “Although this was a difficult decision, we believe that it is necessary to create safer learning environments for our students and staff. We appreciate your support and understanding and will be in touch soon with further updates.”

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