Editor’s note: The following is part one of the Daily Chronicle’s look at how COVID-19 protocols, testing and quarantine procedures occur in DeKalb County public school districts. Expect part two in Wednesday’s Daily Chronicle.
Just past two weeks into the third school year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, DeKalb High School Principal James Horne said he’s aware of the toll the pandemic-era lifestyle can take on a teenager.
Mitigating safety protocols mixed with masking, social distancing, sports, homeroom and all the other things that come with life in high school, he said he often boils it down to a simple task, which he posits to both teens and adults.
“We only get one shot at this,” Horne said. “You only get one freshman year, one sophomore year, one senior year. We can’t control the virus, we can only control our responses in the moment. We just have to work together, be together and be happy with the time that we have.”
Those controlled responses in the time of COVID-19 have evolved into a singular goal: mitigate the spread of the virus, especially among those who can’t, or haven’t yet, been vaccinated, and try to track that spread as it occurs, so that schoolwide disruption is at a minimum, all in the name of protecting the health and safety of the community’s most vulnerable.
Since students returned full time to classrooms this fall amid a nationwide increase in COVID-19 cases, spurred by the highly contagious delta variant, public schools across the state of Illinois have been bombarded with contentious school board meetings amid some parent calls for optional masks, mandates by Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker to ensure optimal protection and fewer hospitalizations, and a desire to get school life as back to ‘normal’ as possible.
Another pandemic landscape
In DeKalb County, the new school year has come with what seems to be the inevitable: COVID-19 cases and with it, dozens of students under quarantine. For many families, this isn’t likely their first rodeo. Since the virus made its debut in March of 2020 in DeKalb County, the 2021-2022 school year is now the third calendar year impacted by a virus which, to date, has not viable vaccine for those 12 and under, a population which make up about half of three of DeKalb County’s largest public school districts.
In DeKalb, Sycamore and Genoa schools, educators are juggling the virus largely through quarantine, testing and other mitigations, all with the end goal to keep kids in the classrooms as much as possible.
One thing that’s different this year than last, said Sycamore Superintendent Steve Wilder, is the amount of students in the classrooms. For the majority of the 2020-2021 school year, public schools utilized a hybrid learning model: meaning children were in the classrooms for a few hours a day, and then took lunch home with them and finished school there, remotely. It was an attempt to spread out the amount of students in a classroom at once, to lesson the risk of viral spread at a time when a viable vaccine (which is now available for all free of charge 12 and older) wasn’t yet ready.
This year, with an in-person goal at the forefront – a priority backed by the Illinois State Board of Education and the governor himself – schools have utilized a plethora of strategies: Seating charts for buses, for lunchrooms and for classrooms. A statewide mask mandate announced by Pritzker in July, followed by a vaccine mandate for educators announced in August, and an attempt to offer school in as sterile an environment as possible.
“The differences this year compared to last year is we’re now allowed to put students closer together,” Wilder said. “It’s good that we’ve got students back in school, and we’re making every effort to space students out, minimize contact, staff are still looking out for students with symptoms. And the mask mandate, although not popular with everybody, is something that our students and staff have been really good about. I hope that it helps keep students healthy.”
Last Friday, the Illinois Department of Public Health released its weekly school COVID-19 outbreak findings, reporting that three of the four recorded viral outbreaks were linked to Sycamore Middle School. The fourth was at Littlejohn Elementary School in DeKalb District 428.
The outbreaks report clusters of fewer than five cases linked to people who’ve shared school grounds together and are form different households. It’s unclear the exact number related to each outbreak, since state officials don’t report specifics. However, local school data reported by the school districts is provided weekly.
According to Sycamore’s online COVID-19 tracker, the week of Aug. 30 reports 18 students positive, no positive staff cases or staff quarantined, and 134 students quarantined. From Aug. 21 through Aug. 27, there were two positive staff cases and 12 positive student cases of COVID-19 in the DeKalb School District. Three staff members and 208 students are in quarantine. Genoa-Kingston’s numbers also aren’t expected to be updated until Monday. As of Aug. 27, the Genoa-Kingston School District reported five students tested positive for COVID-19. No staff members tested positive, but one was in quarantine, and as of that date 16 students were in quarantine.
Not all these reported cases at the school level are related to outbreaks, however. School outbreaks are identified when two or more cases are linked to the same area or group of people.
Contact tracing and case identification
When a COVID-19 case is identified in a public school student in DeKalb and Sycamore, the parent will often call their child’s principal or teacher and tell them personally, said officials with DeKalb and Sycamore school districts interviewed for this article.
That’s when the contact tracers come in, said Wilder. In DeKalb and Sycamore schools, building nurses and often building staff (principals, teachers, even bus drivers) will act as contact tracers for the case. Using available seating charts – not all buses or lunchrooms have seating charts, school officials said – the contact tracers will map out where a student has been in recent days, whether in class, at lunch or at sports practice.
Close contacts of that case – students who have spent a cumulative 15 minutes or more within three feet of that positive case – are notified accordingly and must often quarantine.
Wilder said the district has protocols in place to inform parents and students involved as efficiently as possible.
“There are multiple steps here,” Wilder said. “When there’s an individual case, this process goes a little faster but it’s still time sensitive.”
After a positive case is identified, district contact tracers speak with DeKalb County Health Department officials and prepare an email notification and a phone call message that is then sent to students and families who tested positive and those identified as close contacts.
Any student who is vaccinated does not need to quarantine as long as they are not exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, Wilder said.
For those at the high school, where students fall within the category of 12 and older, eligible for at least the fully-FDA approved Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, quarantine might look a little different, said Horne.
“It depends on if they’ve been vaccinated,” Horne said. “I don’t have any hard numbers on that because we haven’t surveyed the students. We’re in the process of gathering that for our staff because of the mandate. Anecdotally, I know that many of our students are vaccinated and that is changing first and foremost whether they have to quarantine. It’s also changing what their quarantine looks like.”
Health and school officials have recommended a series of quarantine options for close or potentially exposed contacts, with each choice offered based on circumstantial factors such as how much time a student has spent with the positive case.
In Sycamore, for instance, health staff will tell a potentially exposed student and family they need to either: quarantine for 14 days, 10 days, or 7 days, or they will be offered the chance to take a COVID-19 test four times for a week. If they test negative, they can remain in the building.
Each option is offered to each family and student differently based on the circumstances, Wilder said.
Although Wilder said school-associated COVID-19 cases are not contact traced by the health department, health officials do try to provide guidance and support. Building nurses, health aids and administrators conduct contact tracing by consulting seating charts used in each classroom.
“We do have assigned seating in the classrooms which has been super helpful,” Wilder said. “There’s assigned seating on some of our buses but not necessarily all of them so that’s something that we’re obviously rectifying. But the buses that did have seating charts, that was super helpful. Another advantage is that our bus drivers know the students really well.”
Districts across the state are also fielding a shortage of bus drivers amid the new school year, throwing yet another kink into the plans for bus-related seating and social distancing, according to a recent correspondence that went out to DeKalb District 428 families last week, which was obtained by the Daily Chronicle.
Wilder said school lunchrooms also don’t have assigned seating because of the number of students in them compared with the same time in 2020 when schools were using hybrid learning models to stagger the volume of children in a room at one time.
“We space students out as much as we can given the space we have,” Wilder said. “Fortunately, the middle school has a good-sized area for lunch, and then we do use space in adjacent hallways.”