What happens when hundreds of students quarantine in DeKalb County schools?

A look at how DeKalb County public schools are tackling COVID-19 mitigation for the third school year in a row

Editor’s note: The following is part two of the Daily Chronicle’s look at how COVID-19 protocols, testing and quarantine procedures occur in DeKalb County public school districts. Read part one at www.shawlocal.com/daily-chronicle. Stay tuned for more on testing and viral mitigation in this week’s Daily Chronicle.

The Illinois State Board of Education’s Superintendent Carmen Ayala issued a statement Tuesday reaffirming the need for students who are in quarantine because of COVID-19 exposure to have “continuity of learning.”

According to the statement, the updated language states that students who are under isolation, quarantine or have tested positive for COVID-19 must have a remote learning option available to them. According to local public school “return to learn” plans in this pandemic era, that option is already in place, all the more relevant as more than 500 students were reported in quarantine in DeKalb and Sycamore schools due to possible viral exposure as of last Tuesday. Updated numbers for Genoa-Kingston schools were not available as of Tuesday.

For educators attempting to balance teaching, contact tracing and everything else that comes with the school year, mitigating quarantines can be a challenge, Sycamore Superintendent Steve Wilder said.

“We fought pretty hard to get students back in school in person,” Wilder said. “Quarantining is something we have to do, but not something we want to do, because it takes our students out of the school environment.”

For local schools, part of the quarantine process is fielding parent feedback, and communicating choices, Wilder said, adding he knows parents can be frustrated and disappointed. It’s a lot of back and forth with building principals, juggling home and school life amid a disruptive, and often unexpected, transition between classroom and home learning.

“They take all these steps and yet can still be placed into quarantine,” he said. “Through no fault of their own, they might have to be out of school not once, but twice. So that’s why it’s so important to keep each other safe as a community, making decisions about social distancing, masks and vaccination. It really is for the entire community.”

In District 428, DeKalb High School Principal James Horne said he knows “the life of a teenager is the life of a teenager,” but said at the high school, where students are eligible for vaccines, outbreaks aren’t necessarily occurring as they were last year, meaning less quarantine is needed, too.

“I feel like it’s as properly mitigated as it can be,” Horne said. He said sometimes it’s hard to know if it’s COVID-19, or “seasonal allergies kicking in randomly at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday.”

“I think as long as everyone’s following proper guidance and aware of what’s safe and not safe, I think that’s definitely a step toward providing an overall safe environment,” Horne said. “I think masks add to that. Distancing and communication really adds to that.”

He said at DeKalb High School, he’s been “very impressed” with student compliance to protocols such as the mask mandate.

“We’ve had very little issues,” Horne said. “Obviously we take mask breaks during the day. If it starts to slip, you’ve got to remind a student to put it up over their nose. Our staff has been on top of it. We don’t have anybody outwardly defiant and not wearing masks. Our parents have been very supportive, understanding of the tremendous task we have. The message I keep sharing to everybody is that this is just what we need to do to get kids back into the building.”

According to DeKalb District 428′s return to learning plan for the 2021-2022 school year, a remote learning plan has been laid out and individualized for each grade and school building. According to ISBE, remote options are only made available to students who are both ineligible for the vaccine per their age and also quarantined.

What happens after quarantine?

As of last Friday, there are hundreds of students in DeKalb and Sycamore schools in quarantine due to possible exposure to COVID-19, according to the most recent available data released by DeKalb County school districts Tuesday.

So what happens when a parent receives word that their child has been possibly exposed to the coronavirus in the age of fully in-person learning?

According to local school district officials, it depends on the situation. At DeKalb High School, for instance, Horne said if a student is identified as a close contact, or exposed, they’re pulled out of the classroom right away and isolated until a parent or guardian can come pick them up.

According to quarantine numbers, there have been more than 500 local students in the DeKalb (402 students) and Sycamore (122 students) districts in quarantine over the past week and 55 cases of the virus identified between Aug. 30 and Tuesday. In DeKalb schools, 29 students and two employees reported positive cases last week. In Sycamore, as of Monday, that number is 24 students and zero employees.

It’s unclear how many, if any, of those cases will result or have resulted in hospitalizations, as local entities don’t divulge that data publicly. The state health department tracks hospitalizations by region. Local numbers also do not include a breakdown of how many of the positive cases include those who’ve been vaccinated or not. There also is no available local data to show how many students, say of the 500, will or ultimately do end up contracting the virus.

According to Genoa-Kingston’s return to learn plan for the 2021-2022 school year, the DeKalb County Health Department determines the days a student is expected to quarantine, or if they’ll be eligible to instead take a series of COVID-19 tests to stay in the classroom, provided they’re all negative.

That checks out in Sycamore, too, said Wilder.

“Each case is a little bit different, and it depends on when the exposure was as well as a couple other factors,” Wilder said. “The date of exposure, how long that individual has been displaying symptoms.”

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, known as the “Test to Stay” option. 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, and the DeKalb County Health Department has the final say on what a student should do.

The county health department, according to district’s plans, including Sycamore District 427, also has the authority for a final say on quarantine options, including to not offer a testing option and instead mandate a quarantine based on classroom or individual outbreak circumstances.

Wilder said it’s an unfortunate but lived reality that some students may have to quarantine more than once.

“Those are when students are out of school for 14 days, multiple weeks, and one of the frustrating things is that the students are out for a week or two, back for some time and then out again,” Wilder said. “We’re focusing more on educational continuity, trying to avoid quarantines to maintain that continuity. We want to keep things as smooth and as continuous as possible.”

Transitions and technology

When students are quarantined, they should stay home, Wilder said. Classroom teachers provide students in quarantine with take-home materials, including textbooks and a Chromebook. All students still have access to teachers, including those who are ineligible for the vaccine and children under 12, who get a remote tutor, Wilder said.

“That remote tutor contacts the family, checks in every day, provides some instruction and support,” Wilder said. “It’s not the same as a classroom teacher. It’s a bit more limited. The remote tutor acts a little like a liaison. Whether kindergarten, middle school or high school, it’s important to still do our best to stay in touch, provide materials and activities. One of our goals is when they end quarantine, they have as smoothly as possible a transition back into their classroom or classrooms.”

For those students who do end up out sick for a prolonged period of time, the digital age has created an access which Wilder said didn’t exist before.

“The difference is now, we have the internet, apps and programs, Google Classrooms, Canvas learning management system, and can upload and download documents,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to stay in touch now than it was in the past. It’s different, and it’s not the same as it would be in person in class.”

The transition from learning under quarantine to learning in a classroom – the latter of which is a mandated priority statewide as the third school year impacted by the pandemic is underway – isn’t easy, Wilder said. But the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic are anything but when it comes to school.

“There are a lot of reasons why students were out of school for extended periods in the past: disciplinarian, health reasons, Mononucleosis, things like cancer and other illnesses out for a semester or a year or even more,” he said. “The difference is that they’re rare and isolated cases. With quarantines and the pandemic, we’re seeing more of those cases.”

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke is the editor of the Daily Chronicle, part of Shaw Media and DeKalb County's only daily newspaper devoted to local news, crime and courts, government, business, sports and community coverage. Kelsey also covers breaking news for Shaw Media Local News Network.

Katrina Milton

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.