'Schools aren't meant to be empty vessels': How districts are trying to stay COVID-19 safe

Steven Spearie
State Journal-Register

Micah Miller has two daughters enrolled at Ball Charter School.

Every day, Miller, a School District 186 board member who represents Subdistrict 2, asks them routine questions about their day, whether they met anybody new at school and what they had for lunch.

See also: UIS officials: COVID-19 continues to affect enrollment numbers

Lately, Miller has tacked on a new series of questions: Is anybody missing out of your classroom? Is it anyone who was seated next to you? How do you feel? Do you have a sore throat?

"I feel like," Miller said, "we're on borrowed time, our family, until we get that call, that it's going to be our kids who tested positive or are now quarantined. It's kind of what everybody is going through.

"It's an experience we're very in tune with."

As area school districts are settling into their first month of in-person instruction, they are doing so with mitigations such as universal masking, a mandate from Gov. JB Pritzker, social distancing, and frequent hand washing.

Kristy Wheeler, the Special Education Coordinator at Rochester Elementary School helps a student cap their saliva collector during their weekly voluntary COVID-19 testing in Rochester, Ill., Wednesday, September 15, 2021. The Rochester School District patterned with the University of Illinois System for their SHIELD Illinois saliva-based COVID-19 testing process in their schools to proactively identify positive cases in order to reduce the virus spread. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Some, like District 186 and Rochester schools, have implemented voluntary Shield testing, which was developed at the University of Illinois. That allows "close contacts" of COVID-19 "positive" cases a chance to "test-to-stay" in school, instead of going directly to a 14-day quarantine period like last school year.

Even with the delta variant that carries a nearly four-times contagiousness rate as the original COVID-19 variant, numbers at area school districts, including Springfield, aren't unexpected. Each of District 186's 33 schools and centers, though, have reported at least one case since the start of the school year.

Leo, left, and Jeffery, right, listen as their teacher, Justin Armbruster, goes through a math lesson at Rochester Elementary School in Rochester, Ill., Wednesday, September 15, 2021. Illinois students and school staff in K-12 and early childhood care centers are required to wear masks indoors because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Illinois students and school staff in K-12 and early childhood care centers are required to wear masks indoors because of the COVID-19 pandemic. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

According to the District 186 COVID-19 dashboard, there have been 290 positive cases reported among students, including 43 cases in the last seven days. About 1,400 students are excluded from school activities, though that, school officials have said, was designed to be a rolling number, with students constantly coming off and going on the list. There are nearly 13,200 students enrolled in the district.

School districts that have had to go to remote learning because of outbreaks have been the exception and include North Mac in Virden, Petersburg PORTA and Staunton.

The overarching sentiment is people are glad to be back to in-person learning, even with mitigations in place.

"Schools aren't meant to be empty vessels," said Rochester superintendent Dan Cox. "They're meant to have kids. They're meant to have life. They're meant to have activities."

A 'layered' approach

Like Miller, Sarah Blissett has kids in District 186 schools, including a sophomore at Lanphier High School and a seventh-grader at Washington Middle School.

Attending recent school open houses, Blissett said she had a chance to look at classroom setups. Like those and others she has visited as a school board member from Subdistrict 3, Blissett said desks have been properly distanced.

"I'm sure lunch is a little more crowded than we would like, with the construction going on at most schools," Blissett said. "I know schools are doing everything they can, like using gyms or other rooms and splitting kids into groups. 

More: Zooming in on the UIS Star Parties? Here are six cool things to know

"From what I've observed, everyone is doing well with their masks. I think everybody is glad to be back in school. I know as a parent, I'm thrilled that mine go to school every single day now."

Students in Physical Education class at Rochester Elementary School celebrate as they cheer on their classmates scoring a goal during Brent Stuckey's PE Class in Rochester, Ill., Wednesday, September 15, 2021. Illinois students and school staff in K-12 and early childhood care centers are required to wear masks indoors because of the COVID-19 pandemic. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Cox said Rochester schools had "stair-stepped" bringing students back in-person full days, four days a week. Last year, the district started the school year remotely.

As then, Cox and other school leaders wanted to create an environment that was safe as possible. Testing for the virus was part of the strategy.

Rochester schools implemented nasal swab testing for symptomatic students but now use the Shield saliva test for nearly 700 students and staff members. Also, schools are holding vaccination clinics and promoting vaccinations.

Last year, the district rolled out a pediatric telehealth program for parents. A page on the district's website provides resources for coping with COVID-19, including breathing exercises and how to talk to teens about the virus.

The district is reporting four current positive cases and 21 students in quarantine.

"I don't know that there is any one thing that we do and can point to and say, 'Here's why we're keeping kids in school,'" Cox said. "When you start stacking things on top of each other, you hear 'layered mitigations,' but it's really an apt term.

"The metaphor I like to use is one of them by itself, social distancing, that one is like a piece of cheesecloth, but when you start stacking multiple things on top of one another, it becomes effective."

'A new day everyday'

Universal masking gets students in schools and can potentially keep them there because it qualifies them for "test-to-stay," said Williamsville-Sherman school district superintendent Tip Reedy.

If a student is identified as a close contact with someone who has tested COVID-19 positive and that student was wearing a mask properly, the student can elect to test-to-stay. Students test at school on days 1, 3, 5 and 7 and as long as the student continues to test negative and be asymptomatic, he or she can remain in school.

A student can get a PCR test that detects RNA (or genetic material) that is specific to the virus if he or she develops symptoms within that time period.

Cox called "test-to-stay" a game-changer. In one week earlier this school year, 80 students tested to stay.

"Last year, those kids would have been home for 14 days and we didn't see any positive tests as a result of that," Cox pointed out.

Reedy said that while the district's schools will continue to push mitigations, it is the time students are away from school that concerns him.

"It's almost like a new day every day," Reedy said. "It's worrisome sometimes as to what's going on outside of school. I think parents respect the fact that we want their kids in school, too."

Dr. Brian Miller, president of the Sangamon County board of health, acknowledged that in-school transmission of the virus is low. Closing the schools really isn't going to help in the reduction of transmission, he said.

Springfield District 186 board member Micah Miller introduces a resolution to notify ISBE and IDPH to consider adding COVID-19 vaccinations to its regular schedule of immunizations during a Springfield District 186 Board of Education meeting at the District 186 headquarters in Springfield, Ill., Tuesday, September 7, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

"It's always been that way (about the concern about community spread). Last year, there were virtually zero transmissions in the schools," Dr. Miller said.

The contagiousness of the delta variant, he said, is similar to chickenpox and measles, though "most of the time school-age children weather the storm fine. The level of severity of infection is relatively low based on the receptors within the lungs of children. Only a very few will get very sick."

Hospitalizations are going up in other parts of the state, with a 20-county region of southern Illinois recently reporting zero intensive care units (ICU) beds available.

More: As Sangamon County celebrates 200 years, here are four people who have had an impact

In Springfield, HSHS St. John's Hospital and Memorial Medical Center have been working at capacity or near capacity in some instances, but "they're managing it and they can still open more ICU beds as needed," Dr. Miller said.

The number of hospitalized young people with COVID-19 is "low and manageable," he said, with stays "routinely pretty short."

By the end of September, Dr. Miller added, the area could see "a significant fall in the number of cases. I do think we'll end up treating it similarly to the influenza virus. It's going to be around." 

'Ultimate frustration'

 Miller, the District 186 parent and school board member, said the "ultimate frustration" is Sangamon County could be doing better on the COVID-19 vaccinations.

If in-person learning was the charge of the Illinois Statel Board of Education and the goal of the district all along, then Miller thinks the vaccination "is a tool now that can allow us to keep more kids in school. I know it's a stressful time for everybody, but we don't need to add unnecessary stresses when there are so many people out there who can be given protection from this virus."

While Sangamon County is in the top 10 in the state among most-vaccinated counties, Miller said "we're barely over half (54.32%). That wouldn't work for a lot of the other viruses and diseases we're trying to keep out of school."

To that end, Miller on Sept. 7 brought up a resolution before the school board requesting ISBE and the Illinois Department of Public Health consider including COVID-19 vaccinations into its regular schedule of immunization requirements.

The resolution goes to a first reading before the board on Sept. 20 and then a vote on Oct. 4.

COVID-19 vaccines for children between the ages of 5 and 11 could get approval for an emergency use authorization sometime in the fall.

"We're saying this is something we're going to be dealing with every year, we would recommend a consideration of adding this in with all of the other vaccines," Miller said.

The student vaccination rate district-wide is about 26%. About 6,000 students are eligible to be vaccinated.

Sangamon County Department of Public Health Director Gail O'Neill said while vaccinations among students is usually a family matter, the department is encouraging coaches and athletes to talk about the issue in hopes of revving up support.

"I think they'll see that the other students who don't have to quarantine, it's a benefit because it's quite a challenge for students missing school," O'Neill said.

Lanphier had to cancel football games against Normal University High and Jacksonville because of COVID-19 protocols.

Five students at Lanphier tested positive for the coronavirus, which includes four on the football team, according to a news release from District 186 spokeswoman Bree Hankins.

Two situations confronting some District 186 schools -- construction projects in already crowded schools and a shortage of teachers and paraprofessionals -- are adding to the pandemic headache, said Angie Meneghetti.

"Everything is kind of intersecting with COVID-19," said Meneghetti, the president of the Springfield Education Association, the union that represents about 1,200 District 186 teachers and other workers. "We can't pretend like things are normal and I think sometimes the State of Illinois likes to think that things are normal because we're all back together. That doesn't mean anything because we have mitigations and COVID-19 and staff shortages.

"Not everything is bad, but if you look at the whole picture, there are a lot of holes we're looking to fill."

Meneghetti didn't provide an exact number of the teacher shortfall, but she said it is more prevalent with elementary school levels and with substitutes. Superintendent Jennifer Gill said at Sept. 7 board meeting there were still about 65 openings for paraprofessionals, who help students with special needs and individualized education programs (IEPs).

"It's in a crisis mode, that's the reality of it right now," Meneghetti said. "The whole district is working together from the top down, everybody, to keep the kids safe, keep the mitigations in place and really have a full-on press to try to get more staff in our classrooms."

Cox said in his district resolve was renewed recently when he observed administrators, teachers and nurses working cooperatively to give students Shield tests in the elementary school and high school.

"Staff members are doing phenomenal work to make sure we are creating those opportunities where students are able to learn and teachers are able to teach," Cox said. "We know the pandemic is unpredictable, but we feel last year we moved forward and never had to stop or go backward. That's our goal this year.

"Did I know what to expect? No. I still don't know what to expect," Cox said. "That's why I've said we have to be adaptable and nimble. There have certainly been difficult moments and difficult days and there will be more, but I do have faith and confidence in our people." 

Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788, sspearie@sj-r.com, twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.