Education

Quarantined students: How McHenry County schools, parents are handling students exposed to COVID-19

Many school districts offer remote learning options and assignments for students to complete at home to stay up-to-date with their classes

Bridget Weingart was dismayed when she found out her child, a Johnsburg School District 12, was exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, leading her child to be excluded from school for 10 days.

But she was more frustrated when her other child, also a District 12 student, was identified as a close contact weeks later and never had to miss a day of class.

Weingart isn’t alone in her confusion and frustration as McHenry County school districts continue to deal with COVID-19 and possible exposures at schools. Hundreds of students across the county have been close contacts to COVID-19 positive cases and many of them have had to quarantine, decisions made not only their vaccination statuses but also the availability and results of subsequent testing for the virus.

In Weingart’s case, the difference was that the district began offering the option to test and remain in school – as long as the tests administered on the first, third, fifth and seventh days after exposure to the virus were negative – after the school year began.

“I got so frustrated,” Weingart said, adding she had tense discussions with school administrators about the situation.

District 12 was far from alone by not offering such a program on the first day of school this year.

More than 40% of agreements between 451 school systems across the state and SHIELD Illinois, a COVID-19 testing vendor associated with the University of Illinois, have been struck since Aug. 23, said Ben Taylor, the associate director for economic development and innovation for the university.

Just less than 80% of the school systems, which include public and private institutions, made agreements with SHIELD since late July, despite nearly three-quarters of public schools across the state being informed they would be eligible for free SHIELD testing in April, Taylor said.

It takes about six weeks from the time a school system signs on with SHIELD to begin testing, Taylor said, and 195 more school systems across the state are going to have testing start over the next three weeks.

“When people ask why is it taking so long, we say it’s really not. A lot of this was jumped on after the mask mandate and after the teacher vaccination or testing mandate,” Taylor said.

In addition to a surge of demand seen in August after Gov. JB Pritzker mandated school workers get vaccinated or face frequent testing, there was also a clamor for SHIELD tests in late July after all schools were made eligible for free testing.

District 12 Superintendent Dan Johnson declined to answer questions about the district’s test-to-stay program, referring them to the McHenry County Department of Health. District 12 had three new COVID-19 cases identified this week and 27 total all year, with 32 in quarantine as of Thursday, according to data posted on the district website. The quarantine figure was down from a high of 53 recorded in early September.

“There hasn’t been one specific area that has driven the close contacts for us, however we are seeing close contacts surface on buses and sports more than in other areas,” Johnson said, adding, like other McHenry County school officials said this week, that this school year in Johnsburg has started off quite well compared to last year’s beginning amid the pandemic.

There still are limits on students who are let back into class through the test-to-stay regiment, according to the McHenry County Department of Health, as students are often not allowed to ride school buses or to participate in sports after being deemed a close contact even after showing negative test results.

“Students and staff are not permitted to test out of quarantine,” McHenry County health department spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli said. But state health and education officials have approved “quarantine modification options.”

Students identified as close contacts in schools without COVID-19 outbreaks can be given options by their school administrators that could shorten or ease the strictness of a quarantine under a variety of scenarios, given negative test results.

They range from having a student quarantine for a full 14 days before returning to class, 10 days, seven days, or returning right away with a series of negative test results through a vendor like SHIELD while still being prohibited in most cases from participating in athletics.

“In general, [a] close contact can return to extracurricular activities if using this option; however, students should not participate in sports competitions for 14 days,” guidance from the McHenry County Department of Health that was last updated last week says.

Marengo-Union Elementary District 165 Superintendent Lea Damisch currently has 15 students in quarantine, but wants to know how many students who have been identified are actually testing positive for COVID-19.

“I would love to see the data on how many close contacts actually contact COVID-19,” Damisch said.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported Tuesday that 1.6% of Chicago Public School students who were identified as close contacts actually came down with COVID-19, causing the system to reduce their number of days a student is in quarantine to 10 instead of 14.

Where Damisch is seeing problems with exposures is on the bus, which has been a common scenario for many school officials.

“The quarantine guidelines are at times very restrictive, especially on the bus where the health department deemed 6 feet with a mask a close contact versus the classroom where it is 3 feet with a mask,” she said.

Keeping parents aware of what the quarantine guidelines are is also a challenge.

Huntley School District 158 Associate Superintendent Jessica Lombard said changes to the quarantine guidelines is “not necessarily frustrating, but you get that communication out to the community and if there has been some changes, it’s just been a challenge making sure people are aware of those components.”

Schools around McHenry County have weekly meetings with health department officials, which Lombard said has helped them keep track of and communicate changes.

“I think that collaboration where we’re able to have those weekly phone calls has definitely helped,” Lombard said.

District 158 currently has 232 students in quarantine or isolation, which is down from upwards of 400 after the first few weeks of school. The district has been using SHIELD testing since the end of August to identify positive cases, which Lombard said has been helpful.

Getting the call your child may have COVID-19 is also a nerve wracking experience for parents.

Sabrina Svitak’s son attends a school in McHenry County that serves students with autism. Last month, she received a call from the school informing her that her son was exposed to the virus and needed to quarantine.

While Svitak’s son never showed symptoms of the virus and returned to school once his quarantine period was over, she didn’t hear from the health department until after he son returned to school. Svitak said not hearing from the health department right away caused more worries.

“I would have liked to speak to a person the moment I was notified my son was in close contact with someone. That initial call [from the school] caused panic and stress. I was left wondering if my other son could go to school, if I could go to work, or even could my exposed son still have a babysitter stay with him,” she said.

The work students are completing while quarantined varies from district to district. Students have been accessing work through online platforms such as Schoology or Canvas. Although the Illinois State Board of Education strongly recommends remote instruction include at least 2 1/2 hours of synchronous learning with real-time instruction, it is not required.

Shelly Atkinson, a seventh-grade math teacher at Lundahl Middle School in Crystal Lake, has had a few students who’ve had to quarantine this year. To help them learn while away from the classroom, it’s all about “those extra bits of effort,” she said. At the end of the day, Atkinson makes herself available for Zoom calls so kids can see her face to face and ask questions.

“Obviously, it’s not the same exact experience as being in the classroom with everybody,” she said. “But at least it’s it’s something in the right direction of getting that instruction that they need.”

In the videos she makes, Atkinson tries to emulate lessons she goes over in-person so that students get the same material and instruction.

“Is it more for us to handle? Absolutely,” Atkinson said. “But I feel like I can’t look at it like that. I’d have to look at it, that they’re still my kids, and I still have to provide what they need, whether they’re here in person or at home. I can’t leave them high and dry when they are at home. It’s not their fault that they’re at home. I’m sure if given the choice, they would rather be here in school.”

At Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47, it was left up to the discretion of the teachers as to whether they provided videos and face-to-face time like Atkinson did, along with the other work they provide students to complete on their own. But after coming to an agreement with the teachers’ union, the district now is looking to hire remote teachers who would give students instruction over a virtual platform for 2 1/2 hours a day, District 47 spokeswoman Denise Barr said.

When asked why this was not established earlier in the school year, Barr said there were a lot of opinions about how to best handle instruction during quarantine.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution necessarily,” Barr said. “It might be a case-by-case basis. It kind of depends on what’s happening, what grade level that student is in, what are they learning. It was hard to come to an agreement about one way that we can handle this, so coming to that agreement is key. And I think the end goal for all of us, administration, staff ... is always what’s best for kids.”

At Algonquin-based Community School District 300, it has remote learning resource teachers to support students with their daily instructional activities, according to its website. Quarantined students are required to check in with these teachers once a week during their quarantine period, though they can reach out to them on an as-needed basis as well.

It isn’t just teachers who may have extra work in a quarantine situation.

Whenever a positive COVID-19 case is identified, Barr said, the district is expected to contact trace, meaning the school nurse has to prioritize getting in touch with families over what they would normally be doing that day.

Cary-Grove High School Principal Neil Lesinski said at the beginning of the year, he and the school nurse were hoping for the best and planning for the worst. But so far, he said, the school has not had very many case and hasn’t had quarantine to many people. He said that was partially due to vaccination status and partially due to the processes in place in the school and on the buses to limit close contacts.

As a whole, Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155, which Cary-Grove is a part of, had 77 positive cases among students this year, with 113 students in exclusion, which includes both positive cases and those under quarantine, according to its COVID-19 dashboard, which was last updated Wednesday.

“We haven’t had any connected cases,” Lesinski said. “We’ve had more so individuals that come to us and they’re symptomatic, they get tested and they’re positive.”

Cassie Buchman

Cassie Buchman

I cover Crystal Lake, Algonquin, Cary, Fox River Grove, Prairie Grove and Oakwood Hills for the Northwest Herald.

Ben Szalinski

Ben Szalinski

Ben reports on local news in Harvard, Marengo, Huntley and Lake in the Hills along with the McHenry County Board. He graduated from the University of Illinois Springfield Public Affairs Reporting program in 2021. Ben is originally from Mundelein and enjoys outdoor activities and spending time with friends and family.

Sam Lounsberry

Sam Lounsberry

Sam Lounsberry covers local government, business, K-12 education and all other aspects of life in McHenry County, in particular in the communities of Woodstock, McHenry, Richmond, Spring Grove, Wonder Lake and Johnsburg.