Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 families received several updates last week, as education leaders navigated a recent rise in student absences and adapted to shorter COVID-19 quarantine and isolation guidelines. In a series of emails sent during the week of Jan. 10, Supt. Greg Johnson highlighted the district’s continuous response to the pandemic, especially as staff and students filed into the building and classrooms after winter break. 

Though Johnson called the absence rate “manageable,” he told families the district saw an uptick in the number of students missing from school each day last week. In a district that pulls in well over 3,400 students from two neighboring communities, the typical daily attendance rate is steady at about 93%, but early last week, it dropped to around 84%. That’s almost 500 students absent every day – and of the 500 students absent, roughly 170 of them were out because of COVID-19-related reasons, Johnson wrote in a Jan. 11 email.  

Early this month, during the first week of second semester, the district counted 172 new cases of COVID, a majority of which (138 cases) were among students. Thirty students and three employees were named close contacts and shifted into quarantine, according to school data. Last week, the district reported a total of 134 new COVID-19 cases with most of the cases (121) coming from students, identifying 46 students as close contacts. 

“We have been in close communication with the Oak Park Department of Public Health about our numbers,” Johnson wrote in the same email sent Jan. 11. “The health department has maintained its previous direction that if we were able to maintain our mitigations and staff our building, staying in-person is the preferred route.” 

In an interview with Wednesday Journal late last week, district spokeswoman Karin Sullivan said school officials saw the attendance rate “slowly” increase with numbers climbing up to one to two percent more each day. By the end of the week, the absence rate neared 88%, she said.  

Johnson and Sullivan also shared that the district has dealt with a sudden upswing in employee absences in the last couple of weeks. Like most school districts across the nation, D200 has had to work around its workers calling in absent, with some of those absences attributed to COVID-19. 

Last week, a daily average of 52 school employees were absent, and district officials brought in roughly 30 classroom subs each day, Sullivan said. Those figures, however, are slightly lower than the number of employees who called in absent during the week of Jan. 3, that first week back from winter break. On average, nearly 69 employees missed work at the start of the second semester, Sullivan said. 

“We fully expected when we came back from break that we would have a lot more positive cases than we had seen to date, and that’s just what’s going on all over the country,” she said. 

“We have made these adjustments to cope with the big rise that we fully expected, but we are really happy to see that the situation is improving,” said Sullivan.  

Among the many safety measures, the district has hired more people to join its COVID-19 team and help with contact tracing, “which has increased so dramatically,” Sullivan said. The district has also sent reminders to families about its masking policies – masks should be worn properly and consistently while in the building – and converting two gyms into makeshift cafeterias to provide more space for students to eat while social distancing. Students, including freshmen and sophomores, can also opt to eat lunch off-campus.   

Another pivot, a glimpse of normalcy

Also last week, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) released their guidelines to help school districts adjust to a shorter quarantine period. Above anything, Sullivan said she wanted families and students to be aware about the new recommendation that first stemmed from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its entirety. 

Under the guidance of federal and state public health officials, school staff and students impacted by COVID-19 no longer have to quarantine for 10 days. They can return to school in five days, but the new ruling comes with many conditions. 

For example, staff and students who test positive for COVID and have symptoms such as fever, vomiting or diarrhea must isolate for five days. Day 0 is the first day when symptoms pop up. Staff and students can come back to school after finishing their five-day isolation period and haven’t shown any symptoms after 24 hours. That also includes being fever-free for 24 hours without the aid of medication, Johnson clarified in an email sent Jan. 12

Upon returning to school, staff and students are required to wear “well-fitted masks” around others for another five days – even in outdoor settings, the CDC noted.  

Those who test positive for COVID-19 but do not show any signs of symptoms are also required to remain at home for a five-day quarantine period. They can come back to the building after the quarantine period is over – and continue to show no symptoms. They must also be masked for another five days while around other people. The district noted if they develop symptoms after testing positive, the five-day isolation restarts.  

“It’s really important for people to understand that the five-day guidance applies with caveats,” Sullivan stressed to the Journal. “Students can return after five days if – and it’s a big ‘if’ – they’ve been [fever-free] with no medication [for 24 hours] or [went] 24 hours without vomiting or diarrhea.” 

“Our fear is because the state guidance is not requiring a test for them to come back after five days, we are really reliant on parents verifying that these conditions are met before they send their child back to school,” she said. 

More details about the new guidance can be found on the school website at www.oprfhs.org or through IDPH at dph.illinois.gov/covid19/community-guidance. District 200 also released two new forms for families to use if they are reporting that their student is positive for COVID or going to be absent from school barring COVID test results. Both are available on the school website. 

Johnson notified families in a previous email that students who may have COVID-like symptoms and are awaiting test results are encouraged to stay home and have full access to online learning.  

“I know it’s hard when your kid wants to be back in class, but truly, if there are any minor symptoms lingering, people need to pay attention to that,” said Sullivan, emphasizing the superintendent’s message.  

With the third week of second semester now underway, Sullivan reflected on the past days and spoke about the pockets of improvements amid absences and COVID-19 cases. 

“We’ve been able to get the school guidance from the state and disseminate that to our families, and we have the five-day change implemented. It feels like things are settling down – that we’re getting more into the normal school routine, especially seeing our numbers slowly improve over the past two weeks,” she said. “That’s also very encouraging. It’s starting to feel better and calmer, and more normal – as much as we can feel normal.” 

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