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Regional Superintendent: When Schools Will (And Won't) Close For Coronavirus

Mark Jontry
Ryan Denham
Mark Jontry is the regional superintendent of schools for McLean, Logan, Livingston, and DeWitt counties.

Parents should be prepared for their child’s school to close for at least a week if a student or staff member there becomes potentially infected or confirmed to have the coronavirus, the regional superintendent for Central Illinois said Monday.

But schools will not close solely as a precaution if no specific, individual person is at risk. The Illinois Department of Public Health is not currently recommending closing schools.

“Don’t alter your routine or anything at this point. We’re going to continue as-is,” said Mark Jontry, the regional superintendent of schools for McLean, Logan, Livingston, and DeWitt counties. “The schools are taking the appropriate precautions at this point. And we’re in constant contact with and getting guidance from our county public health departments, the (Illinois) Department of Public Health, and the State Board of Education.”

As for precautions, Unit 5 told parents Monday that it’s implemented “excellent environmental cleaning measures,” is promoting handwashing education in pre-K through high school, and is closely monitoring daily absences for any trends. District 87 has also put out an update for parents.

If a student or staff member does present themselves as potentially infected or a confirmed case, then the individual school district can decide whether to close a building, Jontry said.

If that happens, he said, expect a weeklong closure. A special education school on Chicago’s northwest side is closed all this week after a teacher’s assistant tested positive for COVID-19. Students and staff have been asked to self-quarantine through March 18.

“At some point, there will be probably be a decision that has to be made on a district by district basis, if the projections of what the virus is going to do in terms of spread does come to pass,” Jontry said. “But we’ll have to handle that on a district by district basis.”

Family travel is another consideration. Illinois State University is currently on spring break. Unit 5 and District 87 spring breaks are the week of March 23-27.

“So we’re going to have some heightened attention to where everybody went, and where they came back from,” Jontry said.

Districts cannot exclude students due to travel considerations. If a student or staff member reports a history of travel to one of the affected geographic locations within the last two weeks and has concerning symptoms, schools should contact their local health department.

Making Up Days

The State Board of Education has proposed legislative changes to allow e-learning plans to be used during a public health emergency, such as a coronavirus outbreak. Those changes are necessary because right now, approved districts can only use e-learning days during the five emergency days built into the school calendar. Those are typically snow days.

Beyond those five emergency days, districts can request approval for an Act of God Day, reserved for something that “poses a hazardous threat to the health and safety” of students. Those count toward the required number of school attendance days and are not required to be made up.

Jontry again expects a district-by-district decision on managing the calendar.

“If we get to the beginning of May with relatively little disruption in the big picture, there will probably be a sentiment to not make up too many of those beyond that, especially at the secondary level, because a lot of kids are through the term,” Jontry said. “What’s the cost-benefit of returning with that?”

Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.
WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.