As students returned to school Jan. 10 after the holiday break, Sangamon County reported the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases it has seen at any previous point in the pandemic, with Springfield Memorial Hospital sounding the alarm on the number of asymptomatic cases.
The disease's spread has ramped up in the two weeks students were on break. Sangamon County's seven-day average of daily COVID cases was 190 on Dec. 23. As of Jan. 9, the county's seven-day average was 749, higher by far than at any point during the entire pandemic. The surge that peaked in November 2020 had seven-day averages of around 240 cases.
Amid that kind of surge, Samantha Fickas, mother of a seventh grader at Lincoln Magnet School, said she wishes there were a remote option.
"Even though (my daughter) didn't do very good with remote, it's putting us in too much danger, her coming back and cases rising way too rapidly, because no one wants to listen and stay home and take precautions," Fickas said Monday as she waited to pick her daughter up from the first day back at school. "It would definitely help, for sure, to have a remote option."
Currently, there is no plan in place at the state or local level to offer a remote option. School District 186 board member Micah Miller spoke up about his concerns with in-person instruction at the board's Jan. 4 meeting. Speaking with Illinois Times the following week as students prepared to return to class, Miller said he's expressed concerns that the board is not responding to the realities of the pandemic in its messaging.
"We set a tone at the end of the last board meeting that we were done talking about COVID, that we're getting back to the things we used to do, and I just feel like that was the wrong tone to set," Miller said. "I think people are just really concerned about the positive number of cases, not only with our staff but in our community, and the likelihood we can keep in-person learning going. I've always felt we had the tools to do it, but I want it to be sustainable. Nobody wants to go to school only to be told they have to be in quarantine."
Miller's son tested positive for COVID following the last week of the previous semester, causing his family to isolate over the holidays. Miller cited the 20 staff members listed as isolating during the first week of January, saying he's concerned the unchecked spread of the COVID's highly transmissible omicron variant may jeopardize schools' ability to stay open.
"From where we're sitting, I don't see it as a surefire thing that we're going to be able to do in-person learning like we've been," Miller said, referring to the fact schools still plan to hold extracurricular activities such as band concerts and indoor sports. "I think we're going to have a rough go of it."
At the same board meeting, superintendent Jennifer Gill spoke of the possibility schools could respond to high rates of infection or isolation among staff at school by making use of an "adaptive pause," essentially shutting a school down or going to remote learning for a discrete period of time while waiting for cases to flatten out, and said schools would coordinate with the Sangamon County Department of Public Health on local health data. However, Department of Public Health director Gail O'Neill said the health department has no concrete metrics in place for what would constitute an adaptive pause.
"We understand an adaptive pause is not what we want to see. We believe school is a safe environment for students with masks on at all times," O'Neill said. "If schools have determined that they can't be safe, we will agree with their decision," she said, noting that she and superintendent Gill speak on a weekly basis about pandemic conditions.
O'Neill also said the health department believes COVID cases that have been detected at school have not necessarily been contracted at school. District 186 schools are providing the saliva-based tests students on a weekly basis. The Illinois Department of Public Health's contact tracers list school as about 43% of all locations of likely infection, by far the plurality. Hospitals account for 6% of contact tracing references, restaurants and bars 5%.
Students have also not been vaccinated to nearly the rate older cohorts have in Sangamon County. More than 91% of senior citizens have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, ranking it fourth among Illinois' 102 counties for that age group, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health. All younger cohorts are significantly less vaccinated, with 64.9% of 18-64-year-olds fully vaccinated, 51% of the county's 12-17-year-olds, and only 18.7% of Sangamon County's 5-11-year-olds.
It's a topic that's spurred controversy all over the country, and in Illinois. Students of Chicago Public Schools remained at home Jan. 10 with no instruction following four canceled school days after a vote by the Chicago Teachers Union to go remote in light of high rates of COVID spread. In response, CPS locked teachers out of the school's online portal. Negotiations between the two entities had reached a resolution by Monday evening, with school scheduled to resume Jan. 12. Asked about any concerns with District 186's start to the semester, Springfield Education Association president Angie Meneghetti declined to comment.
For now, Mondays once again mean Springfield parents are getting up early, packing lunches and picking kids up after the last bell, no matter what the realities of the pandemic look like. Courtney Rowden, mother of a sixth-grade student at Lincoln Magnet School and a freshman at Springfield High School, said she would be more comfortable with a hybrid learning arrangement to lessen the number of students in school but still provide for the needs of students who need to learn in-person. The return to school, she said, has been nerve-wracking, especially after her sixth-grader already came down with COVID in November.
"I like that they're back in school for the socialization, however, it's scary," she said. "I don't want to sequester them and make them depressed, but overall, I think everybody is doing what they can."
Kenneth Lowe is a staff writer for Illinois Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.