Here’s what McHenry County school districts are saying about the fall

Federal, state health officials recently updated guidance for returning back to school

About 100 people, including Kari Cross, far right, crowd into the Huntley School District 158 school board meeting Thursday, July 15, 2021, to support dozens of people who spoke to the board, urging it to give students the option to not wear masks regardless of whether they've been vaccinated against COVID-19, for the upcoming school year.

The first day of school is quickly approaching for McHenry County students, but with federal and state guidance less than a week old, many McHenry County school districts said they’re still finalizing some details.

One question top of mind for many parents is whether face coverings will be required and whether a students’ vaccinated status will dictate whether they’ve got to mask up.

McHenry Elementary School District 15, Johnsburg School District 12 and Nippersink School District 2 are among the districts that will make masks optional for students and staff regardless of vaccination status, while several other districts said they’re still reviewing the guidance.

A full list of districts have what they’ve said is listed below.

The guidance released July 9 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and quickly adopted by the Illinois Department of Public Health recommends masks being worn indoors by anyone 2 years and older who is not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a news release sent last week by the IDPH and Illinois State Board of Education.

State officials also continued to encourage physical distancing of at least 3 feet and students and staff staying home if they are sick to help reduce the risk of transmission.

Schools are urged to work with local public health agencies to determine appropriate prevention strategies considering an area’s level of community transmission – low, moderate, substantial or high – and local vaccine coverage, according to the CDC’s updated guidance.

The McHenry County Department of Health still is reviewing the new guidance, department spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli said in an email Wednesday.

The McHenry County health department last fall created a metric designed to help school districts decide whether to move among fully remote, hybrid and fully in-person models based on local health conditions. Superintendents have also been meeting weekly with county officials regarding the pandemic.

“[S]chools should be the first to open and the last to close,” superintendents from 15 McHenry County school districts said in a letter to the state superintendent earlier this month.

They asked State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala “to allow educators to be the primary decision makers for how school will run for the 2021-22 school year.” The letter was separate from one from large unit school districts that also asked for a relaxation of COVID-19 guidelines.

“Additionally, it should be noted that most schools will not be able to open for full in-person learning without lifting capacity limits on buses and relaxing social distancing in the cafeterias and classrooms,” according to the letter. “Without these changes, many districts/schools will not be able to transport and/or house all students for in-person learning on a daily basis for full days of instruction.”

The letter also recommended initiating a volunteer screening and testing program for students and staff who are not eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and proposed maintaining a focus on cleaning, hand-washing and isolation of COVID-19-positive staff and students.

McHenry County Board Chairman Mike Buehler pointed to that letter in a statement Wednesday, where he and the McHenry County Council of Governments said they backed local school districts deciding what works best for their schools.

“As a father of three children in a McHenry County school district, I completely understand the frustration many parents feel in trying to protect our children’s physical, emotional and mental health and development,” Buehler, R-Crystal Lake, said in the release. “Allowing the individual school districts to implement COVID-19 guidelines gives the freedom necessary to factor in practical considerations such as the ability of students to social distance, bullying concerns, and other needs of the children. Ultimately, I support the parents’ right to make their own decisions for their children.”

Here’s what McHenry County school districts have said since the guidance was released.

Alden-Hebron School District 19

Alden-Hebron School District 19 is working on its back-to-school plan, Superintendent Tiffany Elswick said in an email to the Northwest Herald Thursday.

The 377-student district is “processing through the CDC guidelines and seeking a few clarifications that are supposed to be available to districts soon,” Elswick said.

Elswick did not respond to follow up questions Thursday afternoon.

Algonquin-based Community School District 300

After the updated guidance was released, Superintendent Susan Harkin sent a letter to parents stating that the district’s leadership team and our health staff are reviewing the guidance to prepare for students’ return to full in-person instruction on Aug. 12.

“I will send all parents a follow-up message on Friday, July 16, that provides additional information on the guidance and its impact on our district,” Harkin said.

Cary School District 26

Cary School District 26 did not post anything on its website regarding the new guidance but has said it will be going back to school in-person, full-time in the fall.

Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155

District 155 sent out a status on social media saying students will return to the classroom for a full 9-period day. It has not made a decision on masking in schools yet.

Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47

In an update to parents on Monday, Superintendent Kathy Hinz said the district is reviewing the updated guidance from the CDC, ISBE and IDPH.

“We are happy to have the new guidance as it allows us time to adequately plan and prepare for the upcoming school year,” she wrote.

Fox River Grove School District 3

Fox River Grove School District 3, which is going to a full in-person model, will be requiring masks for students and staff on the bus and in the school building, according to an update in its All In-Person Learning Model plan on the district website.

Staff and administration will be able to schedule mask breaks into students’ days.

“Students did a great job of adhering to this requirement during our hybrid model and full in-person model,” the district wrote.

Before students can enter the school building, families will need to self-certify that the student does not have COVID-19 symptoms.

Parents will be required to self-certify students daily through the district app in order for students to enter the school building. This includes that a student does not have a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher. Any students with symptoms will be moved to an isolation area where they can be further evaluated for admittance to class or for parent pick up.

“District 3 administration will continue to be in regular contact with the McHenry County health department and other area school districts to ensure we make the most informed decision possible,” according to the plan.

Harrison School District 36

Superintendent Sue Wings told the Northwest Herald on Thursday that the district is awaiting “more details and more guidance” about returning to in-person learning and what that might entail.

“The only thing that we know is that we’re following the CDC guidelines,” Wings said.

Once more details are finalized, the district will communicate its plans publicly, Wings said.

Harvard School District 50

The 2,679-student district has not made any decisions about the fall and is waiting for more information, Superintendent Corey Tafoya said in a message to the Northwest Herald.

Huntley School District 158

Superintendent Scott Rowe called the guidance released last week “an important and necessary first step” in informing the district’s planning for the fall but said the district is awaiting further guidance from the ISBE.

Huntley School District 158 is waiting for more information regarding safety and school procedures regarding transportation, lunch hours, common spaces and more, Rowe said in the Monday update to parents.

“Though uncertainties remain, this change in the CDC and IDPH’s guidance underscores the impact of vaccinations on our ability to return to normalcy in our classrooms,” Rowe said, pointing parents to vaccination clinics and webinars for parents planned by the McHenry County health department.

“We understand that this period of preparation can be frustrating and that existing mitigation measures raise legitimate concerns about a successful return to full-time in-person learning for all of our students,” Rowe said in his letter. “Please know, as always, our goal is to provide our students and families with the environment, tools, and care necessary to be successful. We will communicate details of our plan to return to school for the 2021-22 year as further guidance becomes available and as decisions are made.”

Johnsburg School District 12

Johnsburg School District 12 also is making masks optional for students regardless of their vaccination status, it announced in a message sent to families Thursday.

“Per the guidance, masks should be worn indoors by all individuals age 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated, however masks will not be required,” District 12 said in the letter.

Marengo Union Elementary School District 165

No final decisions have been made, but Marengo Union Elementary School District 165 is leaning toward recommending, but not requiring, masks for the fall, Superintendent Lea Damisch said in an interview Thursday.

The district, which serves about 1,000 students, was fully in-person all of last year with some students opting for remote learning. Damisch said the district adopted “great mitigation strategies,” including robust cleaning, social distancing of at least 3 feet and a cohort model where teachers moved in most cases instead of students.

In the lunchroom, students will be zigzagged at tables to ensure no one is sitting directly across from someone and the district will be keeping plastic barriers where it had them previously, she said.

Damisch also handled all of the contact tracing for the district, which she said families were “extraordinarily cooperative” with.

“None of that is changing,” Damisch said, noting that the district saw zero contact spread during the school year and never had to switch to a remote model.

That gives her the confidence to move forward with “recommend and should” language regarding masks in schools over “mandate and must” for the fall – with the caveat that masks could become required if cases spike and as long as the McHenry County health department and other public health officials are on board when school starts Aug. 23.

“It’s only July,” she said. “This could all change the day before school starts.”

Marengo High School District 154

The 658-student district “is waiting on further guidance before announcing anything,” Superintendent David Engelbrecht said in an email Friday morning.

McHenry Elementary School District 15

McHenry Elementary School District 15 is recommending, but not requiring masks, for unvaccinated students and staff, Superintendent Josh Reitz announced to the school board Wednesday. Those who are vaccinated also do not have to wear a mask.

McHenry High School District 156

Superintendent Ryan McTague on Tuesday said he would know more about how classes would look and schools would function. He said he hoped to send communications to the school community early next week.

On Thursday, he did not return a message asking whether there were any updates. McTague earlier this month signed onto a letter that advocated recommending but not requiring masks for unvaccinated students, which was sent by 15 superintendents serving parts of McHenry County to Gov. JB Pritzker as well as local and state health and education officials, who could mandate facial coverings in schools.

Nippersink School District 2

Superintendent Tom Lind said the Richmond-based Nippersink District 2 also would be recommending but not masks for unvaccinated students.

“If the community and school data indicate a significant increase in the positivity rate or number of actual COVID-19 cases, the district may need to return to face coverings for a two-week period of time while the situation is closely monitored by school and local health officials,” Lind said in an email.

Prairie Grove School District 46

Superintendent John Bute said in an update to parents that district staff is in the process of reviewing this new guidance.

“Since the pandemic began, I, along with other county superintendents, have been meeting with the McHenry County Department of Health [MCDH] on a weekly basis,” Bute said. “As soon as we learn more from MCDH, our full reopening plan will be communicated to all.”

Richmond-Burton High School District 157

Richmond-Burton High School District 157 would also recommend but not require masks for unvaccinated students, said Lind, who serves as the superintendent for both the high school district and Nippersink District 2.

Both districts will likely monitor vaccination rates at each of its buildings and consider those statistics when making decisions on whether to limit certain school activities or classroom capacities this academic year, Lind said.

Riley School District 18

As one of the few McHenry County school districts that remained fully in person with an option for remote learning last year, Riley School District 18 has a plan ready to go for the fall, Superintendent Christine Conkling said in an interview.

The question that remains is how it can be tweaked in the weeks that come, she said Thursday, adding that the district is seeking further guidance on masks, social distancing and quarantining.

“The wording is not necessarily as detailed as we need it to be,” Conkling said.

Her areas of concern are lunchrooms and buses, noting that last year districts were limited to 50 students on a bus instead the maximum of 72 and that masks will remain a requirement on buses at the very least as they are considered public transportation under CDC guidance.

The first day of school for District 18 is Aug. 25, so they “have a little bit of time” compared to some school districts.

Conkling said she hasn’t been hearing from parents – in contrast to some school districts where school board meetings have become rowdy affairs with many parents imploring districts to make masks optional.

She credits that to being in person last year, adding, “My families know that we work and try to do the best we can.”

The smallest school district in McHenry County with 278 students last year, it started the 2020-21 school year with about 60 students opting to remain remote and ended the year with 12 in that model.

Woodstock School District 200

So far, no information has been publicly posted by Woodstock School District 200. Officials are going to present updated plans for the return to school at a July 27 school board meeting, said Lisa Adams, executive assistant to the superintendent.