Despite the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, area schools opened as normal on Jan. 3, with students and teachers returning from winter break.
However, in Riverside Elementary School District 96, the return to school was accompanied by absences of both students and staff that were far above normal. A total of 246 students – nearly 15 percent of the total enrollment — in District 96 were absent from school on Jan. 3. It was not clear how many of those students were positive for COVID.
“It could be COVID-positive, it could be non-vaccinated individuals that need to quarantine due to a close contact, it could be symptoms that resemble COVID and are awaiting test results,” said District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye. “I’m just not able to separate all of that out right now.”
A similar story accompanied reopening the doors at Komarek School in North Riverside, where 20 percent of students and five staff members were absent on Jan. 3, according to Superintendent Todd Fitzgerald.
“We do not have specific information regarding the number of these students that missed due to COVID,” Fitzgerald said in an email. “There were many families traveling during the break. The winter storm Saturday and Sunday as well as the problems with canceled flights likely impacted the number of students out on Monday. The numbers for [Jan. 4 and 5, after the Landmark’s press time] will be a better indicator of where we are regarding student attendance.”
Eighteen Riverside District 96 staff members, including 10 certified staff, also were out with COVID on Jan. 3. The school district was able to handle the absences with substitute teachers and internal subbing. Staffing shortages due to teachers coming down with COVID have been a major challenge and a factor in some schools, including two in Oak Park, switching to remote learning coming out of winter break.
“We were monitoring the number of staff that had tested positive, so we knew that we could open our doors [Jan. 3] and hopefully for the foreseeable future,” Ryan-Toye said.
After more than a year of remote and hybrid learning, school administrators are anxious to keep kids coming to school in person. Remote learning had deleterious effects on student learning and behavior, and school administrators are trying to keep things as close to normal as possible this year.
Ryan-Toye said that it was not a real difficult decision to keep the school doors open.
“The state board of education and the department of public health had not changed their position,” Ryan-Toye said. “Their position has been that all Illinois school children should return to in-person learning.”
While exact numbers of absences weren’t immediately available from Brookfield-LaGrange School District 95, Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski said that more than 60 students were out due to “COVID-related” causes, adding “That’s the most we’ve seen in a long time.” He also reported that a number of teachers were also absent, leaving administrators scrambling for substitutes, using instructional coaches and specialty teachers, such as art, music and physical education teachers, to fill in.
“We’re starting to very quickly get to the point where we’re maintaining being open versus being in a normal school day,” Kuzniewski said. “It’s been incredibly difficult.”
At Riverside-Brookfield High School, 17 students and two staff members have tested positive for COVID in the first three days of January, according to the school’s COVID dashboard. On Jan 3, 10 staff members, including six teachers, were absent. School officials did not respond to an inquiry about the number of student absences on the first day back from break.
During the month of December, a total of 45 students and 27 staff members at RBHS had tested positive.
The second semester at Lyons Township High School doesn’t begin until Jan. 6.
In Lyons-Brookfield School District 103, Superintendent Kristopher Rivera announced a few additional mitigation strategies.
All sporting events for the week of Jan. 3 have been canceled, no group work will be done and there will be an increased emphasis on social distancing and hand washing.
“We’re going to maintain physical distancing of at least six feet whenever possible,” Rivera said in a video posted on the district’s website.
Although the federal Centers for Disease Control reduced the recommended quarantine time for those testing positive to five days from 10, Rivera said that District 103 will stick with a 10-day quarantine period.
“It’s just too convoluted right now, and I don’t want to take any chances with the levels of positivity right now,” Rivera said.