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Safety measures take center stage in District 161’s fall reopening discussions

Flossmoor School District 161 knows it will be returning to in-person learning this fall. The question is how to do that as safely as possible.

Superintendent Dana Smith said guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has directly influenced the district’s reopening plan. But he told the board during its meeting Monday, July 19, that administrators are ready to adapt should additional guidance come from the Illinois Department of Public Health. They are also looking at other local districts, and what has worked well in District 161 when students have been in session.

District 161 is approaching 70% vaccination rates in its communities, which also helps, Smith said. Only 3-5% of teachers in the district are not vaccinated, Smith added, emphasizing some people may be ineligible.

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“We’re getting really close to some vaccination numbers that will go a long way toward keeping us in school,” Smith said.

The math equation guiding the upcoming school year is that the ability to stay in school is directly related to the number of teachers available and the number of students not being quarantined. 

Smith said he is recommending masks be optional for vaccinated adults working in the buildings but remain mandatory for students, with the exception of during recess. He suggested the board take another look at everything on Sept. 13, roughly a month into the school year.

“We can add; we can revise; we can make adjustments to anything in here,” he said of the plan.

The district is also looking to implement SHIELD Testing, which officials previously discussed in June. The saliva test would be a routine thing for all students whose families do not opt out of the program. It would take place once a week, with the idea being to catch asymptomatic cases quicker and keep outbreaks from occurring.

“The focus of SHIELD Testing is identifying Patient Zero before there are Patients 1-5,” Smith said.

District Nurse Kathy Knawa noted more than 50% of COVID-19 cases among children are asymptomatic. The testing is a safe and proven way to keep children in school, she said.

“Our job is to keep kids safe and keep them in school,” Knawa said. “We have to do everything we can to keep the students safe.”

There is no cost to the district for the program, which is fully funded through the University of Illinois. 

The testing was presented only for discussion at the July 19 meeting, but the board must approve an intergovernmental agreement and opt-out process at a future meeting to move forward with the program. BINAX Now diagnostic tests will still be available for students exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.

When possible, students will be distanced by 3 feet in classrooms and other school areas, Smith said. That may be difficult at times considering how many students will be back within the walls of the schools, with remote learning now off the table except for a “very limited scope,” he said. But Smith said they will do their best.

“Giving it a concerted effort is certainly within our power,” Smith said.

Smith said Knawa likes to refer to the combination of methods they are putting in place as a “Swiss cheese model.” Slices of Swiss cheese are known to have some holes. But a block is another story.

“You put enough pieces of Swiss cheese together, eventually you can’t get through it,” Smith said. “All these mitigations together really add up to a substantial safety plan for us. And it gives an opportunity to start peeling some of them away as we get into the school year to determine, ‘Can we keep moving in that direction as we remove that mitigation, whether it’s masks or SHIELD Testing?’ We can make those choices in the context of a larger safety plan.”

Board Vice President Cameron Nelson asked what the district needs to see in the fall to start reducing some of those measures, with an eye toward removing any obstacles to instruction. Nelson said he would love to get to the point of no masks but sees the data is not there yet.

“I think how it is now is how it’s going to be,” Nelson said of fall.

Smith noted at the moment he is most concerned about the Delta variant of the coronavirus and how many youths are not vaccinated, particularly with vaccines unavailable to certain age groups at this time.

“I’m concerned that if we move too fast we won’t be able to sustain [the plan],” Smith said. 

Board President Carolyn Griggs asked how the district will address parent volunteers in the buildings, in relation to vaccine and mask rules. Smith said he values parental participation in the school experience but that it needs to happen in a way that is safe for everyone.

“It’s imperative that we get our parents back in the building,” Smith said. “We have to have a process and a program that is welcoming but that doesn’t insert any unnecessary risk.”

People have different opinions on whether or not it is OK to ask people about vaccinations, so when it comes to adults visiting buildings, Smith is trying to simplify the protocols.

“The short of that: Masks are mandatory,” he said of parents. “I’m not willing to take that chance, at all.”

Federal ESSER III funds will help the district reopen safely and address the impact of COVID-19, Smith reported. That money also can help to address learning loss. 

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