A staff member and a kindergarten student at Hollywood School have both tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days in what may be a case of in-school transmission of the novel coronavirus.
On April 23, Riverside Elementary School District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye, after being advised to do so by the Cook County Department of Public Health, decided to switch the sole kindergarten class at Hollywood School to remote learning for the next two weeks. It is the first time an entire class in District 96 has been moved to remote learning since last September.
“It is perhaps more than we need to do, but it feels like the right thing to do given the number of students who are quarantine, given their age and the level of activity in the kindergarten class,” Ryan-Toye said.
District officials received word that the staff member tested positive on April 21 and learned of the student’s positive result the next day.
District 96 did not release the name of the employee who tested positive, but the employee reportedly is exhibiting symptoms.
Ryan-Toye said the classroom’s teacher will be providing instruction remotely to her 16 kindergarten students for the next two weeks. Eight students have been told to quarantine as a result of exposure to the individuals who tested positive.
District officials say that they are not sure if the staff member infected the student.
“I don’t think the staff member exposed the classroom,” Hollywood School Principal Kim Hefner said. “We have a staff member who contracted COVID and we have a kindergartner also with COVID.”
But, Ryan-Toye said it is possible.
“I will say for the first time I have wondered about possible in-school transmission,” Ryan-Toye said.
Ryan-Toye said that she was not sure how long the infected staff member interacted with students.
The staff member who has tested positive is apparently one of the very few staff members in District 96 who has not received a COVID-19 vaccination. Ryan-Toye would not confirm or deny that, but the Landmark learned that information from a District 96 official.
More than 90 percent of the certified staff in District 96 have been vaccinated and only about 10 staff members have not been inoculated. Ryan-Toye said the district has been advised by its attorney that it cannot require employees to be vaccinated, but officials are further studying the issue.
“It’s a legal issue right now relating to vaccines being emergency-use authorizations, so the ability to mandate is still unclear,” Ryan-Toye said. “It’s a policy we’d be very open to exploring.”
The district has strongly encouraged staff members to get vaccinated and to participate in a saliva screening test and continues to do so.
“We’re at a very high percentage, but we’re not at all,” Ryan-Toye said. “We keep encouraging people to get vaccinated. Availability has really opened up so that is not our issue.”
Ryan-Toye said she didn’t know if the infected staff member has been participating in the saliva screening test, but the kindergarten student who tested positive was identified through the saliva test. That student then took a diagnostic test that confirmed it.
District 96 school board President Dan Hunt said the district had been advised it could not require employees to be vaccinated. Private employers can apparently require that employees be vaccinated before coming to work in person. But, Hunt said it was concerning that a staff member may have infected a student.
“I have a kid in kindergarten myself at Blythe, not at Hollywood,” Hunt said. “It’s definitely concerning. It would be my preference for the teachers and staff working with my kids that they were fully vaccinated but it’s their option if they don’t want to. I can respect their choice in that regard.”
Board member David Barsotti said that he believes everyone should be vaccinated but wasn’t sure if the district can or should require it.
“I feel that that COVID-19 is a public health crisis,” Barsotti said. “We finally have something that helps mitigate and eventually eliminate this pandemic, and so I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to get vaccinated.”
Barsotti implored all district students and staff to participate in the saliva testing.
“I do feel that everyone in this district should participate in the saliva screening, because that is going to be instrumental in stopping any type of in school transmission,” Barsotti said. “We have to get this virus under control and part of that is participating in that saliva screening.”
Board member Jeff Miller, who is leaving the school board next month, was outraged that a staff member would refuse to get vaccinated and still come to work and interact with kids.
“No one has the right to jeopardize the health and safety of our students and other staff members by coming in when they’re not vaccinated,” Miller said. “And not only the health of our students, but also their families.
“And, on top of that, now we have a situation where we had to shut down an entire classroom so we’re also jeopardizing the education of these kids. I don’t know what the legality is but on the question of right and wrong, I feel very strongly that this is not right.”