Days before school returns amid a viral surge, DeKalb District 428 officials urge testing

“We anticipate that for several weeks, the situation will remain fluid and it’s possible that remote learning may be implemented,” said Superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez in a letter Tuesday

Gwendolyn Brooks Elementary School students use the hand sanitizer station before Shakyra Bomar, a resource assistant, takes their temperature as they enter the school for their first day of in-person classes Monday in DeKalb. School District 428 is using a hybrid schedule with some in-person classes and some families still choosing to learn remotely. Only students from kindergarten though second grade returned Monday with other grade levels returning soon.

DeKALB – The DeKalb School District 428 is strongly encouraging all staff and students to be tested for COVID-19 before the return to school Thursday, and officials said the situation amid the current viral surge remains fluid.

In a letter sent to district families Tuesday, Superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez said surging COVID-19 cases that have in the past few days set record numbers in DeKalb County could impact the first few weeks of school in 2022. On Thursday, DeKalb students are expected to return to school for a half day, and then a full day Friday to kick off the second semester.

“We anticipate that for several weeks the situation will remain fluid and it’s possible that remote learning may be implemented,” Garcia-Sanchez said. “We will continue to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on our students and staff and communicate necessary adjustments as needed.”

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The superintendent also reminded families that the new guidance released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that cuts isolation time for those exposed from 10 to five days does not apply to Illinois schools.

“For now, our protocols for positive cases remain the same as the first semester which requires a 10 day exclusion for any individual that is positive for COVID-19 or any individual that is unvaccinated and considered a close contact,” Garcia-Sanchez wrote.

According to updated local guidance from the DeKalb County Health Department, those who are symptomatic must also isolate and provide a negative COVID-19 PCR test instead of just a negative rapid test to return to school.

“Students that don’t get a PCR test when they have symptoms must be excluded from school for 10 calendar days,” Garcia-Sanchez wrote.

In a separate correspondence emailed to district staff and student families Tuesday, Deetra Sallis, the school district’s director of human resources, outlined testing guidance.

If people are fully vaccinated, they do not have to report their test results unless they are confirmed positive, the email states. People with symptoms should obtain a negative PCR test, however. If they have a rapid test that is positive, they will be excluded for the 10-days, unless they are able to get a PCR test that returns negative.

“Please note, PCR tests are becoming difficult to come by and processing times are delayed, but we encourage you to test with some type of test,” Sallis wrote.

SHIELD testing also will resume the week of Jan. 10 in school buildings, according to the email. It’s a form of surveillance testing using a saliva-based sample that allows the district to swab people who sign up for the program on a weekly basis, regardless of symptoms, to better determine community spread.

According to the District 428 email, if a person tests positive, they must complete a self-notification google form. The form is the school district’s system of tracking positive cases and is the notification that will trigger communication and confirmation of their exclusion guidelines.

The district also offered COVID-19 testing Tuesday at its Education Center on Fourth Street, using Chicago-based NorthShore Laboratories. Sallis said PCR results for those tests are being delayed by seven to 10 days. She said more than 40 people were tested at the site Tuesday.

In an interview Tuesday, Sallis said that a post-holiday break surge impacting in-person learning is a constant concern.

“However, it’s a moving target, so it’s going to unfold over a period of time,” she said. “We’re looking forward to the start of school on Thursday, which will be a half day. We’re going forward with our regular school calendar.”

Elsewhere, classes continue

In other districts around the county, school already has returned in 2022. Classes resumed in Sycamore District 427 and Genoa-Kingston District 424 on Monday.

Amid the current surge, Genoa-Kingston Superintendent Brent O’Daniell said that the district’s goal is to attempt to continue the school year normally.

“Operating as closely as normal as possible is our ultimate goal: to one day get back to not having to wear masks or social distance, but we don’t know when that will happen,” he said Wednesday. “We will continue using the same mitigations that we have before. We still have cleaning protocols in place, added precautions within our HVAC systems, masking and social distancing.”

G-K schools offer BINEX testing, which is a 15-minute rapid test for students and staff, meant for those exhibiting symptoms in school buildings to be able to more quickly assess whether they’ve contracted the highly contagious virus. Saliva-based testing, done in many Illinois schools using University of Illinois-created SHIELD testing, is planned for Genoa-Kingston schools by the end of the month.

O’Daniell said that the school district does have remote learning plans available if needed, but he said that they district staff will do what they can to avoid remote learning for extended periods of time.

“There has been proof recently that in-person instruction is more beneficial to students overall,” he said. “We will do anything we can to try to avoid an adaptive pause in our in-person learning.”

O’Daniell said that it is still too early to know the exact impact that holiday gatherings over the winter break influenced positive cases or quarantine numbers.

“We have to ask for some patience, understanding and flexibility because rules and information are changing regularly and rapidly,” he said. “We’ll try to keep everyone as informed as possible through social media, emails and phone calls home. We ask that everybody understand that things can change on a dime, and we all have to be flexible and adapt.”

This story was updated at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022 with additional comments from Genoa-Kingston Superintendent Brent O’Daniell.