No more having to seat students 3 feet apart. No more mandatory universal masking in schools or COVID testing.
Thousands of suburban students are heading back to classrooms starting this week as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have eased along with mandates for social distancing and masking indoors.
Yet, health officials are concerned how school leaders will handle the full return to in-person learning amid lingering health concerns with new COVID variants and the threat of monkeypox spreading.
Updated health guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Department of Public Health recommends schools continue a variety of mitigations, such as hand-washing, sanitizing, masking and testing, depending on the COVID-19 community level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention evaluates community risk levels from low to high, taking into consideration COVID case rates, hospitalizations and use of intensive care beds.
“There is still quite a bit of COVID that’s circulating,” said Michael Isaacson, executive director of the Kane County Health Department. “With the high use of home tests, it makes it challenging for us to get an accurate picture of how much COVID there is. We are still looking forward to a much more ‘normal’ school year this fall.”
The IDPH has given schools more detailed direction for evaluating symptomatic students and close contacts for exclusion, and on testing programs. School districts strongly are encouraged to follow the guidance, but the only actual requirement is that school personnel must be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 at least weekly.
Isaacson said health officials are encouraging schools to focus on having systems in place so they can quickly move to address outbreaks.
“We are not putting as much pressure on schools to track an individual case,” he said. “What we’re looking at right now is a cluster of cases. That would be at least 10% of students and staff in a specific group -- classroom, bus, sports team, after-school program -- (testing positive).”
Three or more closely linked cases is the threshold that could trigger some action.
During the last two years of pandemic-affected schooling, there had been significant pushback in some suburban districts regarding masking. Yet that still is the best way of preventing the spread of the virus and provides “an additional layer of safety,” Isaacson said.
A sampling of suburban schools surveyed showed most will follow IDPH guidance and continue certain pandemic-era practices.
In Elgin Area School District U-46, masks will be encouraged but not required. The school district added staff for the 2021-22 school year to allow for smaller classrooms and more social distancing, and that same staffing level has been maintained for this school year to allow social distancing to the extent possible. The state’s second-largest district’s 37,000 students begin classes Aug. 16.
U-46 also currently does not have any vaccine clinics scheduled but likely will offer voluntary COVID and influenza vaccine clinics as a convenience for employees in the fall, said Jeff Judge, supervisor of the U-46 Health Services department.
U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders in his weekly message to families stressed that self-certification and monitoring of symptoms will be emphasized with students and employees.
According to the CDC, studies show 16% of infected students will not show symptoms, Sanders wrote.
“Thus, our best protection against COVID-19 continues to be wearing a mask, ensuring social distance, and washing hands,” he said.