Oak Park District 97 is tightening up loosened restrictions as COVID-19 cases continue to rise among staff and students. Starting Monday, May 16, district employees and students were required to wear face masks on field trips, including on the bus to the trip location. Masks must also be worn by staff, students and guests at indoor school events such as graduation, music concerts or other end-of-the-year celebrations unless otherwise noted. The board also said indoor gatherings should be moved outdoors, if possible.

The rulings came May 13 during an emergency school board meeting where the board met via Zoom to discuss the surge in cases across the district and address gaps in COVID cases reported to the Oak Park Department of Public Health over several months. The board voted unanimously, 7 to 0, to make masks mandatory on certain occasions to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. Last week, the district reported a total of 239 cases among staff and students, shuffling approximately 178 others into quarantine. The district also recorded outbreak cases at five elementary schools: Whittier, Irving, Longfellow, Mann and Lincoln.

Reported COVID cases are also rising at Oak Park and River Forest High School and in the District 90 River Forest elementary schools.

At the top of the District 97  meeting, co-interim Superintendent Griff Powell told the board that the public health department voiced concerns about the way the district had been reporting its case numbers and issued an order to rectify the situation. According to the order, the health department was only aware of a portion of positive cases that cropped up during the first week of May. From May 2 to May 6, the district recorded 214 cases, but the public health department said it only received reports of 57 cases and that three out of the 10 schools shared their numbers. In the order, the department noted one D97 school has not reported its case numbers since January 2022.

The order called for the district to report its COVID case numbers via email “to an individual school’s health department contact within 24 hours of an individual school being notified of a positive case.”

In a separate interview following the meeting, district spokesperson Amanda Siegfried told Wednesday Journal that Public Health Director Theresa Chapple-McGruder notified D97 last month that she had not received updated line lists from school nurses. Line lists – which include key details about a person’s COVID symptoms, date of test results and last days of quarantine or isolation period – are used to investigate outbreak cases and are usually shared the department, Siegfried said.

The district previously hired certified nursing assistants (CNAs) to help nurses enter the data on the line lists, Powell said during the board meeting.

“It was news to us, in April, that [Chapple-McGruder] wasn’t getting that information,” Siegfried told the Journal, adding the district contacted its nurses and IT department to try and solve the “technology issue.” Siegfried said the district was unaware those issues persisted until the health department posted an order on the village website on May 12.

Chapple-McGruder told the Journal she learned about the high number of COVID cases at Percy Julian Middle School last month after a parent called her and brought up the district’s COVID dashboard. Over the last few weeks, Chapple-McGruder said parents reached out to her, asking for more details on the uptick of cases across D97 schools.

       The public health director said she has been working with the district “to get those alerts” and gain access to files, “but it took a while in order to get it figured out.” Prior to April, Chapple-McGruder said she received updated line lists from the school nurses and met with the schools weekly, but that all changed partly due to some staffing issues at D97.   

“I was given a district contact but was asked to not directly contact the school nurses,” she said. “As a result of that, I think [there] was maybe some level of confusion as to where the line lists should go, if the nurses should contact me with the line lists or if they should go to the district. I really don’t know what that breakdown was, but that’s when the major breakdown occurred.”

Chapple-McGruder said she started noticing a more “uniform problem” and that only a handful of schools were reporting case numbers on a consistent basis.

Siegfried confirmed that Chapple-McGruder was to contact Donna Middleton, senior director of student services who oversees the nursing team. Siegfried said the district’s interim superintendents asked Chapple-McGruder to connect with Middleton to help “streamline” the information about COVID protocols, not student cases. 

“The reason this request was made was because the nurses were receiving conflicting information from the health department and the district regarding certain rules/protocols once the state published new guidance in March,” Siegfried said.

“The goal of the superintendents was to streamline communication and ensure that all nurses were receiving the same message, and also to make sure that Dr. Chapple had a dedicated point of contact,” Siegfried said. “We acknowledge that there may have been some confusion about the implications of this request, but again, there was no intent on the district’s part to cut off access. Donna has communicated with Dr. Chapple frequently over the past several weeks.”

 At the May 13 meeting, Middleton and Hilary Winkelhake, a nurse at Whittier Elementary School, assured the board they were addressing Chapple-McGruder’s concerns.

“We [the school nurses] work very closely together, and we have been working our butts off to be honest,” Winkelhake said over Zoom. “We work very hard with COVID. Our line lists are updated constantly. We put in every night and lots of hours on the weekend. All of us do. …

“… This is all on top of our regular duties, including seeing students, taking care of diabetics, taking blood pressures of teachers who need it, making sure that student down the hall didn’t come in contact with something they’re allergic to, giving an EpiPen the other day and calling 911,” Winkelhake added.

Siegfried told the Journal that the attorneys from both District 97 and the village of Oak Park were to meet May 16 to iron out the specifics of the health department’s order, which has since been taken down from the village website. Winkelhake said she and other nurses have expressed concern over providing positive cases to the health department within a 24-hour period.     

“Sometimes, 24 hours isn’t doable for us,” she said. “Yesterday, I had to give an EpiPen [to a student] and that took four hours with EMS coming and going to the hospital and all that stuff. We try as best we can.”

Powell asked Winkelhake if a 48-hour period seemed more reasonable, to which she responded: “Yeah, I think so. We got a lot going on.”

‘Targeted’ mitigation first step to identifying COVID issues

During the meeting, the public health department rolled out a set of COVID measures for the district to consider as cases continue to climb.

Reading the list out loud, Powell said the district has already implemented a few of the department’s recommendations, including increasing COVID and “strongly recommending” staff and students wear masks indoors. The latter was also expanded to include mask-wearing for staff and students once they return to school after testing positive for COVID and those who are asymptomatic and in classrooms in an outbreak status.

The district has also reminded staff and students that those who are experiencing any symptoms of COVID should stay home.          .

Chapple-McGruder said she has advocated for more mitigations to be placed back in schools and daycare centers as cases spike. She said “targeted” mitigations are needed, meaning taking smaller steps like issuing mask-wearing requirements during activities or gatherings known to increase the transmission of COVID-19.

“We had an outbreak associated with a choir in school, so it might be during choir time you need to wear a mask or during choir time, we need to practice outside,” she suggested as an example. “We need to really be able to pinpoint where the issue is and mitigate that issue. It might not mean that we need to go back to full-fledged mask-wearing all day long in school.”

“I would prefer to start out mitigations targeted, and if the targeted mitigations don’t work, then go to a universal masking, if that’s what’s necessary,” Chapple-McGruder said.

At the meeting, the seven-member board moved to require staff and students to wear face masks during portions of their field trips spent indoors, including on the bus. The board is also now requiring staff, students and visitors to be masked at indoor events, unless unmasking is determined unnecessary by a school personnel, and urging schools to move indoor activities outside.

       “I don’t think it’s too much to ask, to consider masking at our indoor school events – to listen to the CDC, to listen to the IDPH, to listen to ‘the science’ as people are wanting to say,” said board member Nancy Ross Dribin. “When our health officials across the country, the county, the state, locally ask us to wear masks indoors that we actually do this.”

       “I can’t encourage people enough,” she said. “I commend everyone for having a real high vaccination rate here. Well done. But that’s not enough to do it alone.”

       District 97 aside, COVID-19 cases are steadily rising in Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 and River Forest School District 90. Cook County now has a “medium” transmission level, with 354 cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days. Board member Venus Hurd Johnson cited Evanston, another city in Cook County, whose transmission level recently moved from “medium” to “high,” forcing officials to take a closer look at reviving loosened mitigations. Evanston school officials announced over the weekend they were bringing back required masking for all staff, students and visitors in school buildings. 

       “Right now, our status is at medium, but I remember when we were at ‘low,’” Hurd Johnson said. “Clearly, our status is increasing, and before we get to high where we really have to take much stronger measures, not just in our schools but across the village, let’s do our part – with our schools at least. And make sure we are wearing masks indoors.” 

Vaccine clinic May 19

The Oak Park Department of Public Health is hosting another COVID-19 vaccination clinic May 19 for individuals aged 5 and older. The clinic will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church, 405 S. Euclid Ave. in Oak Park. For more information or to register, visit the village website at www.oak-park.us or events.juvare.com/IL-IDPH/9unkw/.  

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