Local school officials react to updated federal health guidelines for K-12 learning

Federal health officials urge local control in updated COVID-19 guidance for K-12 in-person learning, though some questions remain for some local school leaders

Sycamore Middle School eighth-graders are seated at a safe social distance from each other in January 2021 as they listen to their teacher, Lisa Pawlowski, talk about proper procedures to follow in the classroom to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Sycamore schools resumed some in-person classes today as part of their hybrid learning plan which includes options of in-person and remote learning.

SYCAMORE – Though some questions may remain for school leaders in DeKalb County, one local superintendent says he is glad the Illinois Department of Public Health approved the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated guidance with weeks left of summer break.

Sycamore School District 427 Superintendent Steve Wilder said Friday the district’s typical approach to COVID-19 related guidelines from the CDC is to wait for official word from IDPH, since “sometimes they have tweaked that guidance over the last year and a half.” However, he said it looked like IDPH adopted the CDC updated guidelines as written.

“The fact that they adopted it so quickly was very much appreciated,” Wilder said.

Wilder’s comments come after IDPH officials announced Friday they will fully adopt the CDC updated guidance for the prevention of COVID-19 for in-person learning in schools this fall, and Illinois State Board of Education officials announced all schools must resume in person learning for the upcoming school year, with few exceptions.

According to a Friday news release from the state agencies, the major elements of the updated guidance includes masks being worn indoors by all individuals ages 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated from COVID-19. State officials also continue to encourage physical distancing of at least 3 feet apart and students and staff staying home if they are sick to help reduce transmission risk.

“Many schools serve children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination at this time,” state officials wrote in the release. “Therefore, this guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies – [including] masking, distancing [and] testing – to protect people who are not fully vaccinated.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their kindergarten through 12th grade COVID-19 guidance Friday urging school officials monitoring local case numbers and working with local public health officials to determine the best course of action for their individual public health situations.

The CDC is recommending in its updated guidance that schools work with local public health agencies to determine appropriate prevention strategies considering area levels of low, moderate, substantial or high community transmission and local vaccine coverage.

“This CDC guidance is meant to supplement — not replace — any federal, state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations with which schools must comply,” according to the CDC. “The adoption and implementation of this guidance should be done in collaboration with regulatory agencies and state, local, territorial, and tribal public health departments, and in compliance with state and local policies and practices.”

Wilder said there has been more of a sense of urgency from school officials in the previous few weeks, since most districts are about halfway through their summer breaks. He said a lot of the internal conversations leading up to the updated guidelines have been based more on guesswork.

“This is something we’ve been waiting quite a while for,” Wilder said.

Wilder said he believes the guidance is “very reasonable and still balances the need of kids needing to get back in the classroom” and that it is still “keeping in mind a safe environment for students and staff.” However, specific district policies and enforcement strategies still have yet to be determined and are expected to be addressed at the district’s school board meeting next week, he said.

“I can’t say that I have a final answer right now for Sycamore,” Wilder said. “But now that we have that guidance, that’s something we’re going to be working on very quickly.”

The CDC still is recommending face masks and distancing of at least 3 feet between students as “key prevention strategies,” according to the updated guidance. If school administrators decide to remove those strategies for their school based on local conditions, “they should remove them one at a time and monitor closely ... for any increases in COVID-19 cases,” according to the CDC.

State health officials said the updated school guidance now aligns with guidance for fully vaccinated people, which includes that group not being required to wear a mask except where required by federal, state, and local rules and regulations. Also according to the Friday news release from the state, all schools must resume fully in-person learning for all student attendance days, provided that remote instruction is made available for unvaccinated students who also may not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine – and only while they are under quarantine.

Federal health officials also recommend the continued use of screening testing to detect cases in K-12 schools as necessary.

Wilder said one thing that he feels hasn’t been explicitly addressed in the updated federal and state guidance is whether there are any potential changes to quarantines protocols.

“I hope to have some final recommendations regarding quarantine by … the next school board meeting,” Wilder said.

The Sycamore school board’s next scheduled meeting is set for 7 p.m. July 13 at Sycamore High School, 427 Spartan Trail. The agenda for the meeting can be found online at go.boarddocs.com/il/syc427/Board.nsf/Public.

Minerva Garcia-Sanchez, superintendent for DeKalb School District 428, was not immediately available for comment on Friday. The district’s next Board of Education meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. July 20, according to school board documents.

Brent O’Daniell, superintendent for Genoa-Kingston School District 424, was not immediately available for comment on Friday. However, the district’s next school board meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Genoa-Kingston High School Media Center, 980 Park Ave. in Genoa, and a listed agenda item for the meeting includes addressing “new COVID-19 protocols,” according to board documents.

For more information on the updated state COVID-19 in-person learning guidance for K-12 schools, visit IDPH’s website at www.dph.illinois.gov/covid19/community-guidance/school-guidance.

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