Education

School quarantine amid omicron ‘a complete nightmare’ for some in DeKalb County

“My child returns to school just to be exposed again the following week,” said Ashley Lafay, mom of a Jefferson Elementary 3rd grader in DeKalb. “As a mom, I live with constant fear and anxiety knowing that there’s really nothing more I can do.”

DeKALB - Ashley Lafay said that with multiple quarantines and her family contracting the coronavirus, life amid the latest pandemic wave as a parent has been rough.

“It’s been extremely difficult trying to maintain some normalcy while also taking every precaution to keep our family and others safe,” Lafay said. “This school year has been a complete nightmare for us. ... It’s a very difficult thing to navigate through for everyone involved.”

The latest surge of COVID-19 cases amid the arrival of the omicron variant during the 2021 holidays has brought with it a familiar set of challenges for educators, parents and students. Schools continue to grapple with prioritizing in-person learning while hundreds of students and staff in DeKalb County’s three largest districts sit it out in quarantine and tackle testing backlogs felt across the nation.

Over the past week, 471 students from DeKalb, Sycamore and Genoa-Kingston schools were reported positive for COVID-19. According to data released Tuesday, 1,916 students were quarantined due to exposure. The number of students quarantined is approximately 18% of both the DeKalb and Sycamore school districts’ student body population and 6.2% of the Genoa-Kingston school district’s.

Public case numbers might not show the whole picture, as at-home coronavirus testing and backlogged laboratories delay results. The real-time impacts of the surge can be seen in schools, however.

Classroom concerns

Lafay is the mother of four children, ages 8, 4, 3 and 1. Her eldest daughter attends third grade at Jefferson Elementary School in DeKalb. Since November, Lafay’s daughter has tested positive for COVID-19 twice. She also had to be quarantined because of close contact multiple times. Her daughter has been out of school for 40 days in quarantine: a total of four times for 10 days each.

As the third school year impacted by the pandemic continues, Lafay’s daughter has spent more time doing remote work than in the classroom.

“Right now, remote learning is only an option for those out in quarantine,” Lafay said. “My child returns to school just to be exposed again the following week. ... As a mom, I live with constant fear and anxiety knowing that there’s really nothing more I can do. There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel just yet as these numbers continue to climb.”

Unlike the remote learning days of 2020, learning outside of the classroom in DeKalb schools looks different two years on. Instead of more traditional remote learning where students were interacting with their entire class virtually, teachers have to juggle both their in-person students and those at home in quarantine.

It’s called parallel teaching now, said Amy Russell, a third grade teacher at Littlejohn Elementary School in DeKalb, and it offers its own set of challenges. Parallel learning offers quarantined students a chance to watch a live stream of their class, so they can continue to learn in real time as able.

“Students who are excluded due to COVID are joining my Google Meet during the day while I’m teaching a classroom of students,” Russell said. “We are also often short-staffed. Teachers are covering lunch duty and bus duty and even other classrooms. There is also a substitute teacher shortage which often leads us to scramble in the morning to make changes to assure classrooms are covered.”

Russell said that while some things have remained the same in her classroom during the pandemic, her students are more aware of taking precautions to keep themselves healthy and safe, including distancing from others, wearing a mask, cleaning and using hand sanitizer.

Her third grade students were in first grade at the start of the pandemic, so for them, school at a time like this is their normal.

“We are doing our best to meet the needs of all students during this difficult time, and it’s hard to believe that we are still dealing with this today,” Russell said. “We want the kids in school, and we are happy that they are back. I also think that the kids were ready to come back to school. These kids are so resilient and brave.”

Kyle Gerdes, director of student services with the DeKalb School District, said that a shortage of teachers, substitute teachers and bus drivers, as well pandemic surges, has led to multiple challenges at all levels of education.

The brunt of such shortages means the work falls on employees who remain.

“It’s definitely a trying time in education; however, it’s all hands on deck from a staff standpoint,” Gerdes said.

Gerdes said the district offers staff tips for self-care and additional time for planning and preparing.

“We know that staff are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, and we’re looking into what we can do at a district and at a building level,” Gerdes said.

In Sycamore School District 427, more COVID-19 quarantine, and stalled negotiations between district officials and a teachers’ union working on a long-expired contract have set the tone for the 2022 school year.

Last week, hundreds of Sycamore educators gathered in front of the school board to protest working more than 160 days on an expired contract, and said next steps could include a strike or a walk-out.

District officials have declined to say what the ongoing negotiations entail, and why a resolution hasn’t yet been reached with the union. In DeKalb, the teachers’ union in October called for non-punitive COVID-19 sick leave.

Sycamore Superintendent Steve Wilder said the omicron surge has some district buildings reporting higher absence rates than others, and some have more virus activity.

“It’s quite obvious we’re not out of this surge yet,” Wilder said. “We’re cautious with everything. It’s been a blessing that we’ve been able to be in school face-to-face this year. Schools are a safe environment for students, and we’ve seen a lot of improvements in comparison to last year.”

He said coronavirus case and quarantine numbers are the highest they’ve ever been since the pandemic started. Wilder said he hopes to see Sycamore’s rates decline on trend with statewide numbers, which show a slight dip in virus-related hospitalizations. Illinois leaders this week said they are cautiously optimistic the omicron wave has peaked.

Wilder said he thinks a return to in-person learning, extracurriculars and activities is a positive for the district.

“The social-emotional piece is a big part of the positives of this school year,” Wilder said. “Things are a little bit back to normal, and we’ve been able to hold events like football games and concerts.”

Rheon Gibson, the principal at Littlejohn Elementary School in DeKalb, said that the number of students in quarantine or contracting the virus varies weekly, but his school is focused on keeping kids in classrooms.

“My staff has been very resilient, and they have persevered no matter what,” Gibson said. “The families have also been very flexible and have embraced change.”

That flexibility has come at a steep cost, though, said Lafay. She said she’s worried about the remainder of the school year and 2022. Her husband has already had to use his vacation pay for the year, before the end of January as their family balances quarantine.

“I’m exhausted, mentally and emotionally drained,” Lafay said. “I wish the district would consider families like ours when making executive decisions.”