The number of COVID-19 cases is slowly rising in Oak Park and River Forest schools, but education leaders say the recent uptick, which began in early April after staff and students returned from spring break, has yet to cause major concern or a perceived need to tighten up loosened safety measures.

Throughout April, school officials saw new positive cases as staff and students filed back into the building after a week-long break in late March, the numbers doubling — and even tripling in one district. Last week, Oak Park District 97 reported a total of 129 cases among staff and students, its second-highest sum in April and since numbers dropped to single digits in the months prior. District cases peaked at 167 during the third week of April, with cases mostly attributed to students at Julian (82) and Brooks (21) middle schools.

The number of cases that cropped up now are nowhere near what they were in January at the start of the second semester, school officials said. Schools in Oak Park and River Forest saw a surge of COVID cases as staff and students came back to the building after a two-week winter break. Of the three public school districts, D97 was the only one that closed down some of its elementary schools, while others shifted to remote learning.

Amanda Siegfried, spokesperson for D97, said the district is trying to figure out why so many cases have spiked at the middle schools, specifically Julian, while cases in the elementary schools have stayed consistent, averaging less than a dozen per week.

As D97 nurses and Oak Park public health officials investigate the growing number of cases at Julian, Siegfried said school officials are considering possible contributing factors, including the ease of masking protocols in schools and other public settings across the community. The rise of COVID cases at D97 follows a surge seen in Illinois and around the country because of BA.2, a subvariant of omicron, Siegfried said. Near the end of April, BA.2 accounted for at least 79% of COVID cases, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Locally, Cook County public health officials also reported a “medium” transmission risk level with 210 cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days. In an April 27 village memo, the Oak Park Department of Public Health noted 201 new COVID cases. Seventy-five of those cases involved children age 5-13, according to the village memo.

Siegfried also pointed to a recent three-day weekend in mid-April where faculty, staff and students were off from school and celebrated Easter, Passover and Ramadan with their families as another potential contributing factor. School nurses reported that many families were unmasked at their gatherings, she said.

“Mitigations have been easing everywhere, not just in our schools,” Siegfried continued. “We’re having more activities; we’re having more athletic events, more concerts and things like that. In the community, people are doing more things than they were last spring.

“There’s all of these things going on, and it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly happened at Julian, but we think all of these things are at play.”

Karin Sullivan, a spokesperson for Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200, and Samantha Martini, infection control officer at River Forest District 90, echoed Siegfried and shared some insight on what they have seen among staff and students.

In April, D200 and D90 experienced a similar jump in COVID cases but not to the extent of D97. D200 reported a total of 106 positive cases among staff and students last month, while D90 identified 50 cases among its own staff and students, according to each school district’s COVID dashboard.

Siegfried, Sullivan and Martini said district officials have yet to discuss the return of the mask mandate or any other restrictive safety protocols and are keeping a close eye on case numbers.

Like Siegfried, Sullivan said D200 officials are unsure of the reasons for the increased cases, but laid out a couple of trends taking place at OPRF.

Sullivan said she has noticed a gradual dip in the number of students voluntarily testing for COVID-19 week after week since the high school first dealt with the quick rise of cases brought on by the omicron variant in late November.

“We saw a big surge, and we were testing several hundred students,” Sullivan said. “But since then, the numbers have just really fallen off. They’re not participating. We do encourage it, but it’s certainly not required.”

Sullivan said more and more staff and students are also choosing to be unmasked since the district announced a mask-optional policy. Sullivan, however, said she has seen some staff and students put their masks back on as cases have gone up. 

“What we’re seeing is part of the evolution of learning to live with COVID,” she said, explaining that changes to quarantine guidelines have also presented some challenges. The CDC says people asked to quarantine should stay home and away from other individuals for at least five days after their last close contact with a person who has COVID. Individuals in quarantine are instructed to wear masks at home and upon returning to school, work and other public settings for another five days.

“People are strongly urged to wear a mask when they come back [to school], but again, that’s not enforceable,” Sullivan said. “We cannot make someone, even if they’re coming off of a five-day absence, wear a mask. We strongly encourage it. I would say that the onus is falling more on the individual now.”

That rang true for Martini, who said another hurdle she faces is making sure families are reporting their positive test results to the district and public health officials. As more people are self-testing for COVID at home, they need to inform the schools, as well as the county, if they have the coronavirus. 

“Our numbers are definitely skewed because a lot of people are doing the at-home test, and they say, ‘Oh, shoot. I’m positive. I’m just going to stay home,’” Martini said. “They don’t realize that, ‘Hey, I should probably report this to the county so that way they can continue to keep an eye on what’s going on.’”

With the end of the school year in sight, Martini said she urges families to think through their options, whether that includes wearing masks and being vaccinated, and decide what works best for them.

“Play it safe, and play it smart,” she said.    

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