Back to school

Students head to classrooms for a second pandemic school year


It's the first school year since the pandemic began that all students are to be in classrooms full time. Schools have planned ways to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and its potentially more contagious variants, as the delta version is proving to be. As of Aug. 18 the community transmission level was high in nearly all Illinois counties, including Sangamon, according to state data.

School starts for Springfield's District 186 on Aug. 23. In Sangamon County, daily confirmed cases of COVID-19 reached triple digits in the first half of July for the first time since January. In late July, Illinois announced that newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 were up 80% when comparing one week in the month to the next. More people are now being hospitalized than in previous months, including children. No one can gaze into a crystal ball and see just what the coming months, even years, will bring. But we all had hoped things would be better at this point. Amid the seemingly unending uncertainty, it's clear the majority of health and education experts agree it's time for kids to go back to school. In-person school is how most kids learn best, and many rely on school for more than academics alone – from socialization to basic needs being met, such as meals. But just what in-person school should look like during a pandemic is another fracture in the dividing lines in our communities. Misinformation about masks and vaccinations is plaguing the public discourse.

Back to masks
Experts say that in order for the pandemic to end, more people need to get vaccinated. Universal, indoor public mask use, in the meantime, is crucial to keeping kids in school. And it's crucial to keeping the larger community as safe as possible from a virus that can lead to death and long-term negative outcomes – even after so-called "mild" cases.

In mid-May, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lifted its guidance for universal mask wearing – deciding fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks in most settings. Health practitioners speculated that the move was made because people who are vaccinated are largely protected from the virus, and that the decision might motivate more people to vaccinate so they could go maskless too.

Then the delta variant came onto the scene. Scientists and public health officials hadn't expected it was "going to be so bad in terms of transmission as well as disease severity," said Dr. Vidya Sundareshan, chief of the division of infectious diseases at SIU School of Medicine in Springfield. The vaccines are "slightly less effective" against the delta variant, said Sundareshan. Breakthrough cases – COVID-19 infection among fully vaccinated people – are rare, but possible, though vaccines protect most people from severe illness and hospitalization. Still, on July 27, as cases rose throughout the country, the CDC reversed course and urged mask-wearing for everyone in public indoor settings, including schools.

Health experts agree that returning to school is crucial for the overall well-being of students. Doctors have seen negative psychological effects from remote learning – learning at home, online. "The main idea is to keep children in school," said Sundareshan – while also keeping them as safe as possible. Until enough people are vaccinated against COVID-19, mask-wearing is an essential part of precautionary measures.

Of course, the mask mandates are not universally accepted by the public. Those who are discontent have expressed outrage at school board meetings in Springfield and via protests across the state and nation. As is true for other aspects of COVID-19, misinformation about masks is rampant. Dr. Doug Carlson is chair of pediatrics at SIU School of Medicine. He said he has heard from some parents who worry about mask usage, and whether it is safe. Perhaps they have seen misleading information shared online or are just curious. "We know that the masks are effective," said Carlson. It's clear that when masks are properly worn, they help prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as other diseases. Fewer children were catching various viral illnesses when mask use was prevalent than they had in previous times. "Now, as masks started to come off this summer, then we started to see a resurgence in some of those other infectious viruses," Carlson said. "There is no evidence that masks have a downside," said Carlson, who added masks have not caused other types of infections, such as pneumonia, as some have wrongly claimed in the case against masks.

Meanwhile, there is another contingent of parents who worry their children will not be safe returning to school. Public health officials say the risk of infection is low, if masks are worn properly, and that getting kids in classrooms is best for their social and academic well-being.

It's unclear when and whether vaccination against COVID-19 will be broadly required for teachers and students, as other vaccines such as those against measles and polio are required. Currently, COVID-19 vaccines are only available for children 12 and older. Sundareshan and Carlson both said there is hope vaccines will be available for younger children – perhaps those ages 7-11 – by the end of the calendar year.

Public health measures continue to be politicized throughout the country and in Illinois by those who spread conspiracy theories, lies and propaganda. Earlier this month, an Illinois attorney who has been fighting against various COVID-19 mitigation strategies filed a claim alleging the governor did not have the authority to impart a statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools – which the governor did on Aug. 4. Meanwhile, the Illinois State Board of Education has made it clear that any K-12 schools in the state that fail to impose a universal mask mandate risk losing accreditation.

click to enlarge On July 19, the District 186 board reviewed a draft plan regarding masks. The plan would have only required masks for unvaccinated staff and students. The rule later shifted after the CDC said later in July that all students and staff should mask, regardless of vaccination status. - RACHEL OTWELL
Rachel Otwell
On July 19, the District 186 board reviewed a draft plan regarding masks. The plan would have only required masks for unvaccinated staff and students. The rule later shifted after the CDC said later in July that all students and staff should mask, regardless of vaccination status.

Legal questions
Brian Bare is a senior attorney with Whitt Law LLC, based in Aurora. The firm works with public bodies including school districts. So, does the state have authority to impose COVID-19 mitigation mandates in schools, such as masking requirements? "That is definitely an open question," Bare said. "The state feels confident that it has the authority to enforce these mitigation requirements and the mask mandates."

Chicago Public Schools is requiring all employees to be vaccinated by mid-October, with limited exceptions. Are COVID-19 vaccination mandates ahead for schools, more broadly? "Absolutely, that could be on the horizon," said Bare. Gov. JB Pritzker announced vaccination mandates for certain state workers, and that could be coming to schools as well, said Bare.

The question of who would be liable for students or teachers if they become seriously sickened by COVID-19 contracted in school has been a tough one. "Schools have an obligation to maintain a safe learning environment for their students and their employees. And that has been an issue of discussion with regard to COVID-19," said Bare.

Last summer, insurance companies covering schools made it clear those insurance policies won't cover illnesses such as COVID-19. Illinois schools are generally protected from claims of harming students through tort immunity law – "however it does not provide protection in the event that a plaintiff proves that there was willful and wanton misconduct," said Bare. He said he's not aware of any such case in Illinois. But if a student or teacher were to get sick with COVID-19 in school, there could be a potential case for them to make against their school district.

Illinois school districts have been crafting plans for the return of all students to in-person school – the most clear objective coming from top government officials on down – based on shifting guidance. "Everybody's been on pins and needles," said Bare. For instance, in July District 186 presented its draft plan to only require masks for unvaccinated staff and students. By its next meeting, the plan had changed to follow the most recent CDC guidance that everyone in schools wear masks regardless of vaccination status.

Deep divisions
Mask mandates aren't the only controversy when it comes to COVID-19, but the debate around them has crystallized just how heated science deniers are about public health strategies. "It's been maybe one of the most divisive experiences that I've ever had in my life," said District 186 superintendent Jennifer Gill. But she refuses to take sides. "I can't go one way or the other," she said. She said she doesn't want to alienate kids who come from families with certain beliefs.

In District 186 the majority of students come from low-income families. Staying in touch with students throughout the pandemic proved difficult in some cases. The district equipped each student with their own iPad or laptop to use for remote learning. Internet connection was also offered. Still, overall attendance fell from 91% in 2018-19, to 78% in 2020-21, according to the district.

Students being in classrooms means teachers can more easily check on their well-being – they can make sure they are well fed and have no signs of abuse. There's simply no substitute. "Teachers shift on a moment's notice with learning strategies to meet the needs of individual learners," said Gill. Doing so over Zoom is next to impossible. "With the right mitigation strategies in place we can make it work and we can allow students to thrive and grow with their learning goals."

"We were very successful with our mitigation strategies, and our quarantining, and we did not have any known spread from the school setting," said Gill. "But once again, all last year, and all summer, we've been in masks."

This school year though, with all kids back to class, keeping social distance will be more difficult. And while there are plans in place on when and how to gradually lessen current restrictions, there are no guidelines for when students would possibly return to a remote or hybrid school system.

Last year, the school board set metrics for when hybrid school – classes held both online and in-person – would begin, based on public health data, but later decided to offer the option for some students to return to classrooms before the metrics were hit. Some worried it was too soon to send kids and teachers back to school. "Trying to set a metric of an unknown is difficult," said Gill. "We don't know what the delta variant is going to do with this virus."

click to enlarge Second-graders at Camp Compass at Wilcox Elementary use letters to make words that match pictures. The summer programming has a focus on fun and play that leads to learning. - PHOTO BY LORI QUARTON, LITERACY COACH
Photo by Lori Quarton, literacy coach
Second-graders at Camp Compass at Wilcox Elementary use letters to make words that match pictures. The summer programming has a focus on fun and play that leads to learning.

Safety measures

The district has received more than $108 million in relief funds since the beginning of the pandemic. Those dollars have been used on masks, air filtration devices for classrooms and cleaning supplies. The district has also hired 12 new members of custodial staff. Permanent substitute teachers have been hired who can fill in for teachers who may need to quarantine at a moment's notice. Every school now also has a community liaison to help guide the flow of information regarding COVID-19. Rapid testing is also offered now for those who may be exposed to the virus. In addition to funds being used to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission, the money is being spent in other ways meant to combat learning loss due to the pandemic.

Molly Berendt heads Compass for Kids, a Springfield nonprofit that provides social and academic support to children experiencing poverty, including homelessness. District 186 contracted with Compass to take over the bulk of summer school programming for elementary-aged children. Compass also provides after-school programming during the school year, all of which took place online this past school year.

But this year, summer school – Camp Compass – was back for in-person session. Berendt said teachers and students were enthusiastic about being together. Compass is requiring its own staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and even though summer school was a success, serving nearly 500 students, Berendt said she is waiting to see about the best way to conduct after-school programming this school year.

"I'm watching the numbers because I may ask all of my staff to go back and work from home again." While she's hoping the program can be in-person, she said at this point there has to be a contingency plan – "because there's so much unknown" – as community spread continues to rise.

There were no swimming or field trips this summer, or partnerships with the dozens of area businesses that generally participate in Camp Compass. But still the students "were so excited to be back in person. They didn't mind wearing masks that much, they were just happy to get to be at camp," said Berendt. For some of the youngest kids, Camp Compass was their first time being in a classroom.

Teachers are tired
Last year, a survey conducted by the Illinois Education Association – one of the state's largest teacher unions – found that about one-third of Illinois teachers had pondered leaving the profession. Teacher shortages already plagued the country and state for years, but the pandemic burnout has prompted some to hasten retirements or just plain quit. Some teachers being told to return to classrooms are concerned for their safety.

Meghan Kessler is a teacher education professor at University of Illinois Springfield. Her report from November 2020 on teacher shortages found a basic lack of respect from the public is widely felt by teachers. That can factor into why they aren't satisfied with their profession.

"Teachers are always there to show up for kids and for communities, and of course there are exceptions to that, just as there are in every profession. But giving teachers respect for the work that they do – it's really hard to communicate how important that is," said Kessler. She found that many teachers have been working double or even triple their normal hours during the pandemic.

Kessler said more social workers and staff who could help focus on student behavior are needed – and not just those who can be funded on a temporary basis due to COVID-relief dollars. Ongoing education for teachers, supported by their employers, and mentorship can also help prevent teacher burnout. Her report also suggests that schools provide COVID-19 testing, hire more teachers, allow them to have a greater voice in reform efforts and pay them more.

The Springfield Education Association (SEA), the local teacher union, was able to bargain for a widespread pay bump for teachers this coming school year. Knowing their salary and benefit package going into the fall is one less thing for teachers to worry about, said SEA president Angie Meneghetti. "Teachers need patience from the public and the parents. They need support in any way that they can get it, whether that's supplies, phone calls, support from each other – anything to help them get through this," said Meneghetti.

click to enlarge Amber Lozzi's kids didn't do any summer programming this year, due to COVID-19. They did, however, participate in a community garden at Butler Elementary. - PHOTO COURTESY OF AMBER LOZZI
Photo courtesy of Amber Lozzi
Amber Lozzi's kids didn't do any summer programming this year, due to COVID-19. They did, however, participate in a community garden at Butler Elementary.
Educated optimism
The number of children infected with COVID-19 has steadily increased since the beginning of July, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 4.3 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 in the U.S. as of Aug. 5, according to the AAP.

Dr. Carlson in Springfield said area doctors are seeing more children infected with COVID-19 lately. While serious illness and deaths in kids infected with COVID-19 are rare, there are long-term side effects in some children, and the delta variant is clearly more contagious. "To the north (of Illinois) in Iowa and Wisconsin, ICUs are filling up with children," said Carlson. While most kids who get sick won't need to be hospitalized, the influx in cases means more kids are getting seriously ill, including in the Springfield area. "We in central Illinois are not yet in a crisis. But right now the metrics are going in the wrong direction," said Carlson.

Amber Lozzi of Springfield has seen family members become infected with COVID-19 to varying degrees of illness – one elder in her husband's family died. When it came time to begin planning for the new school year, she was worried. Her two children are going into first and second grades. They are too young to be vaccinated.

Remote learning was a challenge, with the kids needing hands-on help, while both Lozzi and her husband worked their jobs from home. "I tried to look at it as a blessing in disguise in that I really liked getting the insight into their learning styles," said Lozzi. "I also really walked away with an extra-big appreciation for teachers."

Over the past summer, her kids stayed out of activities where they wouldn't be able to practice social distance. "We are doing our best to keep things as safe as possible." So when it came time to register for school, "I was really nervous and anxious because we have been so cautious and I've done my best to keep them safe," said Lozzi. There is no remote option for District 186 students this year, barring the need to stay home while in quarantine. "The idea of having to send them to school and choose my child's education over their health really made me nervous."

The state's mask mandate for all K-12 schools, "helped me feel better about sending my kids back to school," said Lozzi. While there's still some risk, there's also great reward in her kids getting to be in school. "It is that balance of keeping our children physically safe and healthy while also ensuring that they stay mentally healthy," she said.

"Best case scenario is that the vaccines for our younger population are rolled out by year's end," said Lozzi. She said she was anxious at first about getting her own vaccination, and about vaccinating her kids when the time comes. But at this point, when weighing the risk and reward of vaccination versus not, "The vaccine wins every time." Lozzi said it is her hope that more adults get vaccinated as soon as possible and that "we can come together as a community and really work harder to support our younger generations so that everybody stays healthy."

COVID-19 vaccinations are available to those 12 years and older and are free of charge. You can schedule an appointment in either Sangamon or Menard counties at scdph.org. Anyone in Illinois can get assistance in setting up a vaccination appointment by calling a toll-free Illinois Department of Public Health hotline at 833-621-1284.

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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