Sarah Dodge felt a little nervous as she watched her three kids, ages 10, 8 and 5, start their day on the playground at Landmark Elementary School for the first day back in classes at McHenry Elementary School District 15′s year-round school in downtown McHenry.
“They might be the only kids in masks,” Dodge said.
She asked her students to keep their facial coverings on at Landmark, in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for people who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in schools.
Children younger than 12 have not been cleared by federal regulators to receive shots against the virus, and education officials in District 15 and school systems across Illinois have interpreted the CDC and state recommendations for unvaccinated people to wear masks in schools to mean doing so is suggested but not required.
“We’re hoping for the best,” Dodge said.
While Landmark is normally a year-round school, with a shorter summer break from classes than traditional schools and more days off throughout the academic calendar, it aligned with the rest of District 15′s schedule last year, waiting to start until August because of COVID-19.
District 15 Superintendent Josh Reitz said the local school system was anxiously awaiting guidance from state and federal health and education authorities until it arrived on a Friday evening earlier this month because of Landmark’s planned summer start this year. The district presented its plan just last week to make masks optional to start the year, a decision lauded by many parents at a school board meeting, including McHenry Mayor Wayne Jett.
But because Landmark is year-round, and sometimes has to stop and start programs or make changes to school procedures between its breaks of one to two weeks during the academic year and its shorter summer breaks, its staff and students are used to implementing adjustments on quick turnarounds, said Landmark Principal Margaret Carey, who kept a mask at the ready around her neck as she spoke to students and parents outside school.
“They’re excited to be here, and we’re so thrilled to have them back,” Carey said of her students.
A number of other strategies meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are in place at Landmark and will be at other school buildings once the rest of the district starts classes next month, including an optional screening and testing program officials are pursuing.
Carey also pointed to the air purifiers that have been set up in classrooms and throughout the Landmark building, which also will be present in other schools, as another mitigation, and said more restrictions could be added as the year continues if local COVID-19 caseloads grow more concerning, and lessened if the pandemic wanes.
The positivity rate in McHenry County has been rising over recent weeks from a low of 0.8%, as measured by a seven-day rolling average, on June 29 to 3.7% Sunday, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Friday marked the first time the county has been at or above 3% since June 3.
“I have a mask. I’m going to model mask wearing for the students,” Carey said. “I think that’s important for them to see adults wearing masks in places where they don’t necessarily have to. Watching the students come in today, we have quite a few in masks. And I know other staff members are planning to model mask wearing as well, even those of us who are vaccinated, just so that they know it’s OK. Whatever choice their parent has made for them, that is absolutely fine and we support those choices.”
Reitz also said families should be prepared for the district to change course throughout the year as more knowledge is gathered about the virus and the pandemic continues to be monitored by local, state, federal and worldwide scientists and health experts, just as changes were made last year from remote learning to hybrid learning to fully in-person learning by the late spring.
The district also is planning on encouraging, but not requiring vaccinations against COVID-19 for those who are eligible to receive the shots. Parents at school board meetings in districts throughout McHenry County have expressed concerns about the promotion of the vaccines by local education officials, despite the vaccines’ high efficacy at preventing severe cases of COVID-19 and strong safety marks recorded under close scientific and federal scrutiny.
The IDPH has said fully vaccinated people in pre-kindergarten, K-12 education and day care programs can refrain from quarantining after a known exposure to COVID-19, if no symptoms of the illness are showing, while it has said people who are not inoculated should continue to quarantine in such circumstances.
Local vaccination rates also will be a factor in how District 15 and other education systems in McHenry County make decisions on whether to peel back COVID-19 mitigations in schools or to add more, Reitz said.
“If school administrators decide to remove any of the prevention strategies for their school based on local conditions, they should remove them one at a time and monitor closely for any increases in COVID-19. Schools should work with local public health officials to determine the prevention strategies needed in their area by monitoring levels of community transmission, local vaccine coverage, use of screening and testing to detect cases in K-12 schools,” Reitz said.