'Safety protocols working': Sycamore superintendent on staff shortages, quarantine procedures amid school outbreak

'Safety protocols are working' says superintendent as district reports over 60 cases, 300 quarantined

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SYCAMORE – Even though there are 66 active cases of the novel coronavirus among students and staff at Sycamore District 427 schools, and 318 total people in quarantine, superintendent Steven Wilder said the district is making every effort to make sure the middle and high school reopen on Nov. 30.

"We've got an instructional model we think is working," Wilder said. "We've got safety protocols we've implemented we think are working. So really the question is, are we going to be able to staff it."

Elementary students returned to the classroom in a hybrid model on Nov. 4. The middle and high schoolers were slated to return that same day, but the day before the plan had to be scrapped.

Wilder said staffing levels are what's driving the closures. Although many teachers are still able to teach remotely while quarantined, it still requires a substitute to supervise the students in the classroom.

And if a teacher can't teach while quarantined, that means the substitute has to master the technology the school is currently using to stream its content live to have the class while the other half is in-person.

"What we're asking of subs is a little different depending on the circumstances," Wilder said. "If a teacher isn't able to come into school, and they're not able to work from home virtually, then we need someone who's really qualified to come in and work with the students and operate the technology. That takes one level of experience or expertise, and fortunately, we have subs who have that level of expertise or are picking it up quickly."

Wilder didn't have specific numbers but did say teachers leading instruction from home while quarantine was common. A big reason is that quarantined people haven't necessarily tested positive, and in some cases may not even be showing symptoms. They could have family members sick or be considered a close contact of a positive case.

"We offer teachers to tell us whether or not they are able to teach from home," Wilder said. "One of the advantages of us being remote for the first nine weeks is that teachers have been able to get really good at working with students remotely. Obviously, that's not ideal, we'd love students and teachers together in the classroom, but given the circumstances, if a teacher can manage that, they've already done that for nine weeks, we can allow them to continue doing that."

At the school board meeting Tuesday, Wilder presented a prototype for a COVID-19 data dashboard, scheduled to go live on the Sycamore website by the end of the week. It indicated that 28 staff members and 38 students are currently positive for COVID-19. The data also indicated that 92 staff members are quarantined currently along with 226 students.

How schools track cases

Currently, DeKalb County is considered in the substantial risk category in the four metrics the Illinois Department of Public Health tracks – test positivity, new cases per 100,000, total new cases and youth case increases.

School districts work with state and local health officials to conduct contact tracing when a person linked to the district tests positive, to determine how the virus is spreading, whether outside school buildings or inside, as much as they're able.

In schools, health department officials are able to more clearly conduct contact tracing, Lisa Gonzalez, public health administrator for the DeKalb County Health Department has said.

"With schools and workplaces, contact tracing is pretty easy because we know where the students are, we know their desk assignments, who's working when and where," Gonzalez said in an interview with the Daily Chronicle Oct. 27.

The county health department does not provide case data for local school districts, though many in DeKalb County have started publishing their own case data: Genoa District 424 releases a weekly COVID-19 newsletter with quarantine and positive case data, and DeKalb and Sycamore districts, like NIU, have COVID dashboards on their websites.

The state health department tracks public and private school COVID-19 data by county, by confirmed outbreaks (at least five confirmed cases in a building), or by exposure points (a location identified as a potential place where someone who's tested positive has been in the past two weeks, but not necessarily linked to any confirmed cases).

As of Nov. 6, the IDPH doesn't currently list any confirmed school outbreaks in DeKalb County, though Wilder said Tuesday state health guidelines qualify Sycamore High School as an outbreak site because there were more than five COVID-19 cases identified there last week.

When listing potential school exposure locations in DeKalb County, however, the IDPH has flagged 13 buildings as of Nov. 6, with each linked to fewer than five potential, not confirmed, points of exposure.

Those exposure locations include DeKalb High School, Debutantes School, Hiawatha High School, Hinckley Big Rock Community Unit School 429, Holmes Student Center on Northern Illinois University Campus, Huntley Middle School in DeKalb, Littlejohn Elementary School in DeKalb, Lynn G. Haskin Elementary School in Sandwich, North Grove Elementary School in Sycamore, Somonauk Middle School, Somonauk School District 432, and St. Mary School, though it does not specify whether in DeKalb or Sycamore. It also lists Central CUSD 301 district in Burlington, which operates almost exclusively in Kane County.

Some of those districts, such as DeKalb District 428, or Sycamore middle and high school, still have their students remote, but have teachers working from classrooms inside school buildings.

That data is expected to be updated Friday.

Virus surge in Sycamore

According to county virus case data from the DeKalb County Health Department, over the past seven days, Sycamore's zip code has a 20.3% positivity rate with more than 200 new cases identified in a week.

But Wilder said the protocols put in place at the schools help prevent the transmission of the virus at schools. While the long incubation period makes contact tracing to an exact location for transmission difficult, Wilder said there has been minimal transmission on school grounds.

"I had a conversation with some folks here the other day, and right now I would say 10-15 of our positive cases, cumulative, not necessarily the current ones, we think there's a potential connection at school," Wilder said. "So when you compare that to the total cumulative number of cases, still pretty small."

So with a parallel plan that he feels is working coupled with what he said are protocols that are working as well, he said that keeping the doors open to the school comes down to having the staff available to open them.

His main concerns, he said, are the well being of the students and making sure protocols are being maintained.

"This is one of the things that keeps me up at night and is always on my mind, is just monitoring how things are going in our community," Wilder said. "In 11 years as a superintendent, this is something that's so unique. I never dealt with something like this. So 'We need to err on the side of caution' is something that's on my mind all the time."

Eddie Carifio

Has been the sports editor in DeKalb since 2014.