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Thousands of suburban students going back to school after starting fully remote

Districts in Palatine, Oak Park and Batavia, among others, are announcing plans to start some in-person classes this fall.

Students attend classes at Oak Terrace Elementary School in north suburban Highwood earlier this month. Several suburbans are planning to offer in-person classes later this fall after starting fully remote.
AP

Some suburban Chicago school districts that started the year in full remote learning because of the coronavirus are moving to bring students back to classrooms as early as this week with health protocols in place and contingency plans set for potential COVID-19 outbreaks.

Many working parents have struggled to balance their jobs with their children’s at-home education and have called for a return to classrooms, while many have also said they don’t feel safe sending their kids back to school with a volatile COVID-19 still around.

Suburban school workers and their unions have at times fought their districts, as the Chicago Teachers Union has with Chicago Public Schools, against a return to school because of the health concerns brought on by putting children and teachers together in enclosed spaces during a pandemic.

With those factors in mind, Community Consolidated School District 15 in the northwest suburbs, the second largest elementary district in Illinois with 20 elementary and middle schools serving about 12,300 students in seven zip codes, has started a phased-in return to schools a month into remote learning.

Superintendent Laurie Heinz laid out a plan earlier this month, starting with kindergarten and some special education students going back this week, and first and second graders returning to classrooms Monday. Third and fourth graders are set to go back Oct. 5, and grades five through eight will be in school Oct. 13, if all goes according to plan. Students who opt to continue remote learning will be allowed to do so.

Masks and daily symptom self-certification forms will be required for all people entering school buildings, with an adult sign-off needed for students’ forms. Temperature checks will be conducted at the door.

Heinz wrote in a letter to families and staff that the number of new cases and the positivity rate in the district’s seven zip codes would determine any need to close schools. Red flags would include the number of new cases per 100,000 residents exceeding 100 over a seven-day period, or the positivity rate going above 8%.

At the end of last week, those seven-day rolling figures stood at 92.1 new cases per 100,000 residents and a 4.1% positivity rate.

Other factors that could lead to another shutdown would be two or more confirmed positive cases that lead to quarantining in the span of two weeks in one school, or a high number of staff absences due to COVID-like symptoms.

“In-person learning closures could be short or long-term, and will depend on the specific circumstance at hand,” Heinz wrote. “In most cases, these decisions will be made under the direction of the Cook County Health Department and range from temporary closure for cleaning and disinfection to a more extended closure if case-to-case transmission is present.”

Batavia Public School District 101, which serves 5,720 students in west suburban Kane County, is moving its Batavia High School and Rotolo Middle School from fully remote schedules to hybrid models Oct. 19 and Nov. 16, respectively. The district’s elementary students had already been attending in-person classes on alternating days.

Carol Kelley, the superintendent of Oak Park Elementary School District 97, told families and employees in an email Friday that officials are working toward a plan that would put kids back in classrooms sometime this fall, though an exact date is still to be determined.

The district brought back some special education programs on Sept. 15 at Julian Middle School, with details being worked out to bring in more special education students in early October.

A survey will be sent out in October to determine families’ preferences for the next stage that would see all students learning in a hybrid model, Kelley said.

“We are encouraged by the downward trend in our guiding metrics over the past two weeks,” Kelley wrote. “Continuing this trend as a community is an essential component of implementing transitions to on-site learning and keeping our schools open.”