Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 staff and students may have noticed two new changes to the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plans as the new school year kicked off earlier this week.
The district is no longer offering SHIELD saliva tests or updating its COVID-19 dashboard, which for more than a year reported the number of staff and students who tested positive for the novel coronavirus or were exposed to it and forced to quarantine. The district, however, plans to continue working with SHIELD Illinois, which provided the on-site, saliva-based PCR tests for countless schools, businesses and companies, to monitor any outbreak cases.
Like many schools, D200 administered COVID tests for students on a voluntary basis. While roughly 2,400 OPRF students opted to participate, only a couple hundred tested per week, district spokesperson Karin Sullivan said. Participation rates picked up during the omicron surge this past winter, but numbers declined soon thereafter. By the spring, as masking requirements were lifted statewide and other COVID guidelines eased, the numbers dropped even further.
“As we got more and more into the spring, we really saw it in the double digits,” D200 Superintendent Greg Johnson said at the Aug. 11 Committee of the Whole meeting. Johnson joined Sullivan at the meeting to discuss the district’s approach to this year’s COVID safety plans.
“We’re talking about 30, 40, 50 kids on a weekly basis were participating,” Johnson said. “The resources that it took for us to roll that out were just extensive. So we’ll monitor this. Our relationship with SHIELD is strong, and we will — if we need to at some point throughout this semester pivot — we’ll do it.”
Though face masks are still optional for staff and students, Sullivan said messages around masking could change, based on community transmission levels. Communities at a “high” level are urged to implement universal indoor masking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Support for masking continues even when communities are at “low” or “medium” levels, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) advised.
State public health officials also say individuals who are immunocompromised, at a high risk for severe disease or live with others who are at risk for severe disease, should talk to health-care providers about masking. Communities at any transmission level should also “ensure access to diagnostic testing,” but schools have the choice to implement screening testings, state officials said.
“That’s really what we’re paying attention to,” Sullivan said. When the transmission level is “medium” — or “yellow” — the school will recommend masks, and when the level is “high” — or “orange” — masks will be strongly recommended, she clarified.
As of Aug. 15, Cook County’s transmission level is “low,” with 173 cases per 100,000 people. In last week’s village memo, Oak Park had a “medium” transmission level, with 229 cases per 100,000 residents during the week of Aug. 3 to 10. Sullivan added that OPRF currently follows the CDC’s protocols and works with local public health officials.
The district is also looking to renew a memorandum of agreement with its teachers union and give students absent from school because of COVID access to their work through Zoom or Google classrooms. Per last year’s agreement, students at home were able to join their peers virtually and watch lessons take place in real time but were barred from participating.
That access will only be granted to students who submit a positive PCR test and complete a COVID absence form, Sullivan said. School employees who test positive must also fill out a COVID absence form to keep their sick leave intact.
There are parts of the COVID guidelines that do remain the same. The district plans to promote frequent handwashing and social distancing in the classrooms and lunchrooms, as well as continue sanitizing and spreading information about vaccines.
With the first week of school underway, Sullivan said she saw a different type of surge — excitement.
“This is our second year in a row that we’re starting all in-person, all students here, and I think folks have just become more used to dealing with COVID now,” she said. “This is kind of the status quo, and I think that we can anticipate that there may be surges, but we’ve been through that now. It just seems like folks are excited to be back.”