Update on Covid Guidance and Keeping Schools Open

Today Gov. Pritzker announced a new level of mitigations for all regions within the state of Illinois, sharply restricting public activity and strongly urging individuals to restrict their own activity as much as possible beyond the legal limits.

However, this is what the guidance says with respect to schools:

 School districts and local officials should follow extensive guidance released by IDPH and ISBE in August and make decisions related to in-person and remote learning at the local level, based on the unique needs of their communities.

Separately, this is (suburban) Cook County’s most recent (undated) guidance:

For the next three weeks, stay home as much as possible, leaving only for necessary and essential activities, such as work that must be performed outside the home, COVID-19 testing, visiting the pharmacy, and buying groceries.

But the guidance also says this:

Our goal is to reduce transmission as we head into the holidays so businesses and schools can remain open.

And the IDPH issued the same guidance:  “stay at home as much as possible . . . so businesses and schools can remain open.”

This is important.

The county and the state are recognizing schools as a priority for remaining open.

Separately, at the most recent school boarding meeting last week Thursday, which was held virtually with public comment conducted via e-mail submissions read aloud, a group of teachers signed a group letter calling for the district to move to 100% remote learning.   This letter deceptively cited the first part of this advisory, “stay at home as much as possible” while omitting the objective, “so . . . schools can remain open.”  The letter also cited schools as a “potential exposure” from another IDPH document — suggesting that schools are responsible for 10% of cases, because they wholly misinterpret the data.  Potential exposures are determined by asking individuals newly-diagnosed to list all the places they have been in the past two weeks; misleadingly, it does not assess whether they are more likely to have been in those places than the prevalence rates for uninfected people.  It is also data that never should be in a pie chart (because people were asked to list as many places as they had been, not the single source of transmission), and looks highly suspect in any case, due to the small numbers of people replying that, within the past two weeks, they had been in a grocery store.  (I’m tempted to also identify which of the staff members signing the letter are math or science teachers, and call them out for their poor understanding of statistics, as well as calling out English teachers for their deceptive statements.)

(This letter, as well as my own, can be viewed on the district’s website.)

Thankfully, Superintendent Schuler himself, in his own comments, acknowledged that the IDPH guidance specifically references schools remaining open, and reiterated that our schools would do so as long as overall infections within the school buildings remain low, and there are no “outbreaks,” that is, instances where students or teachers can be identified as having transmitted the virus to others during the school day.  (The metrics for infection rates per building can be viewed at the district website.)

And, indeed, notifications about student or staff infections have been infrequent.  (At my youngest son’s Catholic school, infections have been even less frequent, which is to be expected because of the small size and lower infection rates of grade school children, though, at the same time, the students are not spaced 6 feet apart, but only as far apart as possible/practical.)

This is all good.

What worries parents, however, is this:  reports that, with no warning, nearby schools have indeed shut down.  The neighboring elementary district, District 15 in Palatine, announced, with virtually no notice, that schools would close in three days’ time (that is, the notice of the closure was dated November 15, and went into effect November 18), until the start of the new calendar year (or, let’s face it, for an indefinite period), and their justifications were two-fold:  the Cook County stay-at-home advisory, again, neglecting the specific intention for schools to remain open; and a survey that 80% of staff wished for in-person learning to be cancelled.  Not even special education students were spared.

Can parents trust that Schuler will hold firm, that he will resist teacher union pressure, that he will look at the total picture, including real (rather than imagined) risks of in-person learning and harms done to students by remote learning?

I wish I knew.

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