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Southern Illinois schools, colleges adapt in in omicron COVID-19 wave

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COVID-19 continues to be a concern for higher educational institutions in the region.

Southern Illinois University Carbondale adopted a remote instruction model for most classes during the first week of the spring semester, but will return to on-campus classes next week. The university is requiring all faculty, staff and students to be tested for the virus upon their return to campus. Of the tests administered Jan. 10-13, the university reported about a 10% positivity rate.

SIU Chancellor Austin A. Lane said the university will continue to track numbers and require masks to be worn inside all campus buildings and will continue to regularly test those who are unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, classes have begun at the region’s community colleges with minimum interruptions due to the virus.

“At Southeastern Illinois College, we started the semester as planned on Monday — a traditional combination of in-person and online courses,” said college spokesperson Angela Wilson. “We are following the CDC's new 5-day quarantine protocol, as well.”

John A. Logan College President Kirk Overstreet said the college planned for the semester with COVID-19 in mind.

“We did not jump in and add a whole bunch more classes on campus. We left our schedule pretty skinny as it was, but did increase some face-to-face classes because we know that student learn better in person and with what we have in place, we believe students can come back to campus safely,” he said.

Rend Lake College also made no changes to spring semester plans based on the uptick in positive cases.

“We are continuing to be fluid to the COVID situation and its changes every day,” said Rend Lake College President Terry Wilkerson.

In accordance with state mandates, the college is promoting vaccinations and boosters, requiring proof of vaccinations or weekly testing for all students and employees. Two free vaccination clinics are scheduled for the spring, making a total of 15 during the academic year.

“The ultimate goal is to keep the campus community as safe as possible and continue in-person instruction through this pandemic,” Wilkerson said.

Local K-12 schools

The upswing in COVID-19 cases is especially prevalent in Southern Illinois schools – or at least some, leading to canceled classes. Galatia Community Unit School District No. 1 went into what is called an “adaptive pause,” canceling classes Jan. 12 through the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Monday, Jan. 17.

Anna Community Consolidated School District No. 37 went into a remote learning mode beginning Jan. 12, reporting on the district’s Facebook page 12 COVID-positive staff members, 30 students who had tested positive as well as 180 students missing school because of illness.

Herrin Community Unit School District Superintendent Nathaniel Wilson warned his district’s families about the possibility of closures if too many faculty and staff members test positive for the virus.

Lorie LeQuatte, regional superintendent of schools overseeing Franklin, Johnson, Massac and Williamson Counties, said the main issue facing schools is having enough staff to teach students.

“Schools right now are improvising. They are improvising to cover classrooms, to cover transportation and to cover student meals,” she explained. “They are using all available personnel including teachers’ aides, substitute teachers and even administrators.”

LeQuatte said there have been examples of principals and superintendents serving meals, teaching classes and driving buses.

“Everyone’s really pitching in where they can,” she said.

Pinckneyville Community High School Superintendent Keith Hagane said his school has not seen the large number of COVID-19 cases that other schools in the region have.

“As long as we can staff the building safely, we won’t change anything,” he said, adding that, if necessary, he would rather temporarily close schools than go remote.

“I understand the theory of remote learning, but the reality is, it is not the same as face-to-face, one-to-one teaching. There is so much to be said for non-verbal communication and relationships in the classroom; things you can’t do virtually,” he said.

Health officials say the Omicron variant has shown mostly mild symptoms in children. Out of the 830,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the United States, over 1,000 have been children.

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