Wilmington 209-U plans for a safe return to school

Marney Simon

As the countdown begins for back to school, parents and students across the country are wondering what the return to the classroom will look like for the new school year.

At Wilmington School District 209-U, administration and staff are already working on plans to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 when school begins in August.

On Monday, the members of the Board of Education held a special study session regarding guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), and how to bring kids back safely, in advance of a vote on a back-to-school resolution expected Wednesday, July 21.

That resolution contains nine recommendations for returning to school, which will include a return to in-person learning, recommendations for prevention strategies, and guidance for health monitoring.

On July 9, the IDPH formally adopted the CDC guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools.

Of the most controversial mitigation strategies on the list—masks—the district said as of now, as long as supported by local health data, mask usage is recommended for unvaccinated individuals but will not be mandated for any students or staff.

“The biggest thing is the mask issue, that’s the biggest emotional issue,” Superintendent Dr. Matt Swick said. “Many of the mitigations that were in place last year will still be in place.”

The mask guidance does not apply to school buses, where masking remains mandatory per the CDC guidelines.

Students and staff will not be required to disclose their vaccination status, however, they may voluntarily disclose that status to avoid quarantine if exposed to COVID-19.

Swick said an important item for district families to remember is that things can change rapidly. Students and staff who have known exposure to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 will still be required to quarantine.

Since students under 12 are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, those students will remain in cohorts as much as possible. Students in K-5 cohorts may be required to temporarily mask in the case of positive test results within the cohort.

The district will implement safety and prevention strategies district wide, including social distancing of at least 3 feet, encouraging self checks, quarantines, frequent handwashing, regular cleaning and disinfection of learning spaces, ensuring proper ventilation in schools, encouraging everyone 12 and older to get vaccinated, and utilizing a voluntary COVID-19 testing program for symptomatic students and staff.

The district will monitor local conditions and if health data indicates, may require increased mitigations, including the return of required masking, changes to lunch service, or a return to remote learning.

“The key is to be able to stay flexible,” Swick said.

One thing that will change for sure this year—remote learning will no longer be an option as the year begins, except for students who need to be on quarantine.

Back in May, the Illinois State Board of Education passed a resolution that all schools statewide must resume fully in-person learning for all student attendance days, limiting remote learning only to quarantine-specific needs.

The CDC guidance for back to school states the following:

• Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority.

• Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.

• Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated. Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained.

• CDC recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms, combined with indoor mask wearing by people who are not fully vaccinated, to reduce transmission risk. When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet, such as when schools cannot fully re-open while maintaining these distances, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as indoor masking.

• Screening testing, ventilation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and getting tested, contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation, and cleaning and disinfection are also important layers of prevention to keep schools safe.

• Students, teachers, and staff should stay home when they have signs of any infectious illness and be referred to their healthcare provider for testing and care.

• Many schools serve children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination at this time. Therefore, this guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies (e.g., using multiple prevention strategies together consistently) to protect people who are not fully vaccinated, including students, teachers, staff, and other members of their households.

• COVID-19 prevention strategies remain critical to protect people, including students, teachers, and staff, who are not fully vaccinated, especially in areas of moderate-to-high community transmission levels.

• Localities should monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, screening testing, and occurrence of outbreaks to guide decisions on the level of layered prevention strategies (e.g., physical distancing, screening testing).

During Monday’s study session, only one board member indicated that he would not support the measure.

Tim Cragg said he was concerned that the district was passing the resolution without the opportunity for public input, and wanted the vote delayed until August. But the remaining board members opted to hold the vote on Wednesday, in order to give families a full four weeks to know and understand the guidelines.

Monday’s meeting was open to the public, but there were no public attendees either in person or over the phone.

The first day of school in Wilmington 209-U is Aug. 18.