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COVID Quarantines Complicate Coursework In Schools

At Unit 5's Parkside Junior High School, there were 14 confirmed COVID cases and 73 newly quarantined people for the week ending Sept. 11.
Emily Bollinger
At Unit 5's Parkside Junior High School, there were 14 confirmed COVID cases and 73 newly quarantined people for the week ending Sept. 11.

COVID cases and quarantines are increasing in Unit 5 schools, as in the rest of Bloomington-Normal. The most significant bump reported last week was 14 cases at Parkside Junior High and 73 people being sent home to quarantine.

That's up from 12 cases the week before. Superintendent Kristen Weikle said the context of the rise in numbers is not always connected to the school district.

Weikle said a lot of those quarantines are tied to "outside contacts" like birthday parties or sleepovers. Those events have resulted in multiple students from the same school testing positive for the coronavirus.

"We have to back and look to see whether the new students were in close contact with others within the last 48 hours. And then that naturally does take out some students that they go to school with as well," said Weikle.

Unit 5 is far from alone in seeing clusters of quarantined students in certain schools. The outlier is the Lab Schools at Illinois State University, which had zero cases and just four exposures requiring quarantines last week.

In Unit 5, Weikle said kids in quarantine for close contact can expect to be out of school for at least seven days. Sometimes, the health department allows them to come back on the eighth day.

With large numbers of students in a given class out for more than a school week, it becomes difficult for teachers to keep all the kids in a class on the same learning pace. Weikle said Google Classroom helps.

“At the junior high and high school level … students are able to keep up with notes or videos that help them gain some of the information. They have access to the teacher's notes and work assignments. And then of course students at that age are skilled at using email and they can email the teachers or support staff with questions," said Weikle.

In kindergarten-fifth grade, work is sent home or pushed out through Google Classroom. With so many kids out at one time though, would it make sense to offer a remote option to those in quarantine through no fault of their own?

"What we found last year is our secondary educators did an amazing job at trying to teach simultaneously, but that is much more difficult than what people might imagine because you have a classroom full of students as well as trying to observe what's happening for those students at home. So, it's just not realistic to be able to do on a consistent basis," said Weikle.

And, at the elementary level, there is so much movement throughout the day and week with variations when students have special classes such as music and P.E., she said.

"So it's not a nice, clean schedule for parents or students at that age," said Weikle.

In some states, school districts are reviving remote education options as cases increase because of the Delta variant. Weikle said Unit 5 will likely not do that.

"We feel we have a lot of protocols and precautions in place, and should something change we will pivot as needed," she said.

Teachers in Illinois are required to get vaccinated for COVID-19, or submit to weekly testing. That's according to an executive order issued in August by Gov. JB Pritzker. Last week, President Joe Biden issued a vaccine mandate for federal employees with no test option.

Weikle said the federal action may convince additional teachers to get the vaccine, but she said the district does not have plans to impose a mandate on staff. And Weikle questioned how much could actually be gained from such a move.

"We already have approximately 90% of our staff already fully vaccinated and so we haven't taken a look at the reasons staff members may not be fully vaccinated. Maybe a medical condition prevents that," said Weikle.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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