New semester starts as COVID cases spike

Schools work to keep students safe


County schools were preparing for students coming back from winter break last week while COVID-19 cases surged.

That meant a lot of thought, planning and concern for the safety of those returning students.

With a daily positivity rate at more than 10 percent the week students came back to school, there was plenty to be concerned about.

Dr. PJ Caposey, superintendent of Meridian Community School District #223, said the district started preparations well before classes were back in session.

“We have begun the process to implement asymptomatic screening of students who opt in to weekly testing to mirror our program for staff,” he said. “Outside of that, we will continue to take all the precautions we did during the first semester as we were able to all but eliminate the spread of the virus during academic time in schools.”

The same thing was happening in the Byron district.

“In order to get ahead of any potential positive cases, we provided optional testing opportunities over the holiday break for students and staff,” said Buster Barton, superintendent of Byron Community School District #226. “We provided two-hour testing windows on both Wednesdays over break … and we hosted another full day testing opportunity Jan. 3.”

He said the district will also spend more time cleaning and sanitizing its facilities. 

In Oregon, Superintendent Tom Mahoney of Community Unit School District #22, said there were no changes to start off the new semester.

“We will continue to implement the current mitigation measures we have in place and await the update from the IDPH regarding the new quarantine protocols,” he said.

Classes will also be in person in schools across the county.

“We consider that every single day,” Caposey said of distanced learning. “Particularly since Thanksgiving.

“To be brutally honest, my biggest concern is having enough staff to operate. I believe that will close us before anything else.”

Barton said the decision on distanced learning is not in the hands of local administrators.

“For the most part, remote learning is no longer an option for Illinois schools due to the state’s mandate for in-person learning,” he said. “In order for a district to implement largescale remote learning, they must be on an adaptive pause, which is done with the consultation and support of the health department. Believe or not, high levels of community spread alone has generally not been a catalyst for an adaptive pause. However, we communicate frequently with the health department on matters that do affect this decision, like our ability to manage our cases and/or to staff our buildings.”

The recent large spike in cases has certainly not been missed by educators.

“I am always concerned about student and staff safety,” Mahoney said. “We trust our parents, students, and staff to take appropriate steps if they are symptomatic.”

Caposey said they are doing the best they can to keep students safe.

“I do not know that we can ever ensure all kids are safe at school,” he said. “We can continue to follow the guidelines from the CDC and IDPH that have helped to save us from academic-based outbreaks thus far.”

Barton said keeping a close eye on cases in the district is key.

“We monitor our cases daily and communicate frequently with the Ogle County Health Department and district stakeholders.,” he said. 

Mahoney also said the approach is fairly straight forward: “Follow the mitigation guidelines and stay home if they are symptomatic.”