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Virtual or in-person? Southern Illinois schools weigh in amid COVID-19 case surge

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As public elementary and high school districts across the country cancel classes and temporarily move instruction online in response to rising COVID-19 cases, area schools say they view remote learning as a last resort.

This week, members of the Chicago Teachers Union overwhelmingly voted to only teach remotely through Jan. 18 unless instances of COVID-19 decrease or the union reaches a school safety agreement with district.

On Tuesday, more than 8,000 of the district’s 41,000-plus students were in isolation or quarantine because of exposure to COVID-19, many with the omicron variant of the virus.

According to the “School Opening Tracker” from Burbio, a company that gleans school data for posting online, more than 2,000 schools nationally have closed for at least one school day or more this week.

Burbio reports no districts in Southern Illinois delaying the start of school or using remote instruction.

In Illinois, the company reports Edwardsville Community Unit School District and Danville Community Consolidated School District both have transitioned to remote instruction through Jan. 7, while the Peoria Public Schools District extended its holiday break for an additional week due to COVID.

Carbondale Community High School Superintendent Daniel Booth said his preference is to refrain from a remote approach.

“We don’t see remote learning as a top-of-the-list option,” Booth said. “It’s kind of the very last option for us here at the high school.”

Daniel Booth

Daniel Booth

Booth added that approximately 50 students are currently absent from school following positive COVID-19 tests. Carbondale Community High School has just under 1,000 students. He said during the fall semester, a total of 50 students missed school due to the virus.

“It certainly is bigger now than it has been,” he said. “The omicron variant hasn’t been as bad from a health standpoint, but it has been more contagious.”

He explained a bigger concern is with faculty members who may have to enter isolation or quarantine.

“Our determination of remote vs. in-person learning will depend our ability to staff our building, and right now, fortunately, we only have one teacher out to start the semester,” he said.

Booth said he would rather use emergency days to close the school for several days (which would be made up in the spring) rather than using remote learning. He added that a move to remote comes with planning and technological requirements and is not as effective as in-person instruction.

“Probably the only way we would go remote is if the state mandated it,” he said.

In the Harrisburg Unit 3 School District, Superintendent Eric Witges said there is also an uptick in cases, but, like in Carbondale, he said symptoms are more cold-like.

“With any of our students and staff that are showing any type of symptom whatsoever, we are encouraging them to get tested,” he said.

Also, like the school 37 miles to the west, Witges said he wants Harrisburg students to remain in the classroom.

“Remote is always a possibility, but at this time, it is not something we’re looking at,” he said. “We feel that as long as we can do what we can safely and health-wise with our students and staff, we want our kids in school.”

Schools across the region are finding other ways to keep students in classrooms. Frankfort Community School District No. 168 is one of several Southern Illinois schools offering a "test to stay" option for students and others who have potentially been exposed to COVID-19. In a social media post, Matt Donkin of the West Frankfort district said negative test results on days one, three, five and seven after the exposure will allow individuals to continue to attend school as long as they are asymptomatic and following social distancing and face covering protocols.

"We continue to see the benefits of learning in-person to give our students the best chance to be successful," Donkin wrote.

Booth said from a social and mental health aspect, he believes students need to be in school.

“We are dealing with a lot of social and emotional issues that students have from the last 18 months. We’ve seen a lot of problems bubble up for students coming back,” he said.

Booth said he has seen about a threefold increase in the number of students seeking counseling this fall as compared to pre-pandemic semesters.

Carbondale Community High School is offering an on-campus vaccination clinic next week and Booth said in-school testing has been very effective.

“We are doing symptomatic testing, which has been a big help in catching things early for kids that are sick or teachers that are feeling unwell and want to confirm that they don’t have COVID,” he said. “We’re doing the obvious things: vaccinating, distancing and disinfecting.”

The Southern was unsuccessful in efforts to speak Wednesday with superintendents from Dongola, Herrin, Johnston City, Marion, Pinckneyville and Trico for this article.

U.S. health officials are endorsing "test-to-stay" policies that allow close contacts of students infected with the coronavirus to remain in classrooms if they test negative. 

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Even remote learning is not an option for some students at a growing number of suburban schools, where the spike in COVID-19 cases this week has sidelined teachers and staff, suspending classroom instruction amid a critical statewide shortfall of school employees.

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