Not long after District 87 and Unit 5 started to bring students back to the classroom, several other McLean County districts had to pull their kids out of school as coronavirus cases surged.
Administrators say their schools are not to blame for the spread.
In Lexington public schools, about 10 miles northeast of Bloomington-Normal, the district offered all-remote learning for students concerned about the coronavirus. Only 7% of the district's 500 K-through-12 students took that option. The district allowed students to transition to in-person learning at any point. As the weeks passed with no cases, many of them did. But since late October, two Lexington High School students tested positive for the coronavirus.
Superintendent Paul Deters said those two positive cases have prompted 80 students to quarantine because they were close contacts, so Lexington High went all virtual for nearly a week. Officials are counting on having no new positive cases so they can reopen.
“In the last couple of days, we are watching it hourly,” Deters said. “I feel like we are constantly keeping a very close eye on the situation and things are very volatile right now.”
The recent rise in coronavirus cases prompted multiple school districts to temporarily pivot to remote learning. Olympia High School near Stanford, about 15 miles southwest of Bloomington, is going all virtual this week.
Superintendent Laura O'Donnell said the school passed the 15% absence rate through COVID positive cases s and quarantines the district set at the start of the year.
“Every system has a breaking point and you have to recognize when you are nearing that and we have neared that on Friday, so that’s why we decided to pull the plug,” O’Donnell said.
A quarantine lasts two weeks; that's how long it may take to show COVID symptoms or potentially infect someone else. But Heyworth schools have decided to close for the rest of the semester starting Thursday.
Superintendent Lisa Taylor said the district learned of five new coronavirus cases Monday and has had nearly two dozen cases since school began.
“(We are) not anticipating the problem to be gone in two weeks,” Taylor said. “Nationally they don’t think we will have reached the peak by then. That was more of what our conversation was. Do you do it two weeks at a time or do you go ahead and make the call. So we are making the call.”
But Taylor and other school administrators are quick to say they don't believe these coronavirus cases are increasing because schools are open, even though many classrooms can't maintain social distancing.
“We do not have cases linked to other cases within the school,” Taylor said. “Our issues have primarily come when a parent, honestly, has been exposed in the community or at their place of work. Then our parents have done a great job of when parents become sick, they keep their kids home.”
Contact tracing data from the state show schools are among the leading places for potential exposure. Also, new cases among young people have risen sharply in McLean County since school started.
McLean County Health Department Administrator Jessica McKnight said reopening schools is likely just one reason more children are contracting the virus.
“With kids in school you are testing them whenever they have symptoms, so we are definitely seeing more school-aged children getting tested, but also going out more and interacting with their peers more,” McKnight said.
Brian Kurz is superintendent of El Paso-Gridley schools about 15 miles north of Bloomington-Normal. EPG High School is in week two of its shift to remote learning. He said all of its cases appear to be isolated and came from outside the school. He credits staff for reducing the risk of viral spread.
“I would argue that almost everywhere else kids are as they go about their daily lives, the possibility of spread is probably greater there than it in our schools with as much care as our staff is putting into walking through routines and keeping things clean,” Kurz said.
Administrators said they want students back in the classroom because that's the best way for students to learn. Kurz said making that happen takes creativity.
“We have administrators that are going to work during the day and be second-shift custodians throughout the evening tonight,” Kurz said. “We have administrators that are going back and driving bus routes We have teachers that are stepping in and supporting teachers and help cover other classes.”
One reason they have to do that is substitute teachers are in short supply. Laura O'Donnell at Olympia said subs are even harder to find during a pandemic because they are in high demand, and many are older and at higher risk of COVID complications.
“That is something I have been concerned about since May, knowing that this was coming, because finding substitutes and then keeping them and asking them to come out and sub during this pandemic has been very challenging,” O’Donnell acknowledged.
Those school reopening plans hinge on limiting the spread of infection. Deters at Lexington said he encourages any student in close contact with a COVID-positive person to get tested, but schools can't require it.
“I think you have to answer that honestly and say is that a concern? Yes. I can’t put a number on it, but I would say that a majority of our families are getting students tested because they do want to know,” Deters said. “I think they also feel the responsibility of not wanting this to continue to spread.”
Educators said it's important not only to keep their students safe, but to prevent them from spreading the virus to teachers, family and others who might be at greater risk for severe illness.
Ridgeview schools in Colfax will be in all remote learning for the next two weeks. Prairie Central schools in Livingston County also have closed for the week due to COVID-19 exposures.
Unit 5 and District 87 started to bring students back to the classroom in late October. Unit 5 reports 22 new coronavirus cases in the last week among students and staff. District 87 has had nine new cases.
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