After a string of COVID-19 cases were reported at The School of Saints Faith, Hope and Charity in Winnetka last month, school officials dutifully notified the Cook County Department of Public Health and were soon delivered some troubling news.
The Roman Catholic elementary school had met the criteria for an outbreak, thrusting a thorny health and safety decision into the hands of the principal and the Archdiocese of Chicago about whether to halt in-person instruction.
“We decided to immediately pivot to e-learning for a temporary period, because first and foremost is the safety of our students and staff, and we just didn’t want to take the risk,” said Justin Lombardo, the leader of the archdiocese’s COVID-19 task force, who said students have been back in the classroom at the North Shore school since Nov. 30.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 163 such school-based outbreaks have been reviewed in the state, including nine reported Friday by the Illinois Department of Public Health. But while the state is now posting such numbers online — and health departments are assisting schools with surveillance of cases, contact tracing and guidance — it still falls to school officials to make the biggest decision: Does the school need to shut down again?
Instead of an outbreak triggering a mandated closure, the Cook County health department typically advises local education officials like those at the Winnetka school that while it would be ideal to return to remote learning, it’s up to them to decide. Five to 10 cases among both staff members and students were reported at Faith, Hope and Charity, according to state data.
At least one recent addition to the outbreak list, Wheaton Christian Grammar School in Winfield, remained open, with no plans to close before its holiday break begins next week, according to the person who answered the school’s phone on Friday. The school had five to 10 cases involving students only, according to the state data, which lists outbreaks by ranges of cases rather than specific numbers.
To be classified as an outbreak, a school must have five or more students or staff members who test positive for the coronavirus, are not from the same household and may have a shared exposure on school grounds or during a school activity like a sport.
The state’s school COVID-19 data, which is updated weekly, includes outbreaks identified within the previous 30 days. IDPH is also posting numbers of cases among school-age children.
That such data is being reported, but does not come with specific actions that must be taken by school officials, prompted two of the state’s largest teachers unions last week to demand clear metrics and direction they say are imperative to ensure the safety of teachers and students.
But an IDPH official said Friday that while school closure decisions are ultimately the jurisdiction of local authorities, county and state health departments help schools navigate outbreaks every step of the way.
For example, once a school reports a positive COVID-19 case, the local health department immediately partners with the school to conduct contact tracing, IDPH spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said.
One common scenario is the local health department may ask a school to let them know if “Johnny” was in the same classroom at the same time as “Billy, Bobby, Mary and Sue,” as outbreaks are identified by cases being in the same time and space, Arnold said.
As to whether there’s a point at which the state would mandate a school closing — as Gov. J.B. Pritzker did statewide at the pandemic’s onset in March — Arnold reiterated, “Decisions regarding in-person or virtual learning are made by local school districts.”
She also noted that even if five unrelated students from the same school test positive for COVID-19, if they have never been in the same classroom or other school space at the same time, the cases do not qualify as an outbreak.
Dr. Rachel Rubin, a Cook County Department of Public Health senior medical officer, said when the department learns of a COVID-19 case related to a school, a staff member contacts the school administration and nurse to gather case-related information and exposure dates.
The details are then reviewed, and the school is given a date the student or staff member is cleared to return. The department and school also seek to determine if anyone else at the school was exposed to the infected person, with that defined as being within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 or more minutes over a period of 24 hours or less, Rubin said.
The county follows the state health department’s guidance on pausing in-person instruction but “does not make specific recommendations unless there’s an outbreak at the school,” Rubin said.
Yet despite the health departments’ diligence in contact tracing, local school officials are left to grapple with these decisions at a volatile time that has divided many suburban Chicago communities into two factions: parents demanding that schools remain open for those who choose to send their children back, and those who say remote learning is the only safe option as COVID-19 rates continue to surge.
At Thomas Middle School in Arlington Heights, which was on the state’s school outbreaks list last week with 11 to 16 cases among staff members and students, District 25 Superintendent Lori Bein, announced that the school’s roughly 940 students would shift to remote learning from Dec. 3 through Monday. Students were expected to return to the classroom Tuesday.
The superintendent’s decision did not require the support of the school board. However, the board did recently vote to continue in-person instruction districtwide, despite a recommendation from Bein that its nine schools move to remote learning until January due to soaring COVID-19 rates.
In Plainfield School District 202, while the vast majority of its 25,000 students have been engaged in remote learning this school year, the in-person classroom instruction for about 300 special education students was halted last month after just two weeks, following an outbreak at Plainfield North High School, district spokesman Tom Hernandez said. The school had five to 10 cases among staff members, state data showed.
One of two Chicago private schools that appeared on the state’s school outbreaks list this month, Yeshiva Tiferes Tzvi School, was closed Friday, and officials were not immediately available for comment.
But in a Dec. 3 statement to parents posted on the school’s website, officials said there were at that time four full classes and four partial classes in quarantine, with more than 100 students and 20 staff members temporarily out of school, and more than 30 positive cases among the school’s families and staff, though the state data only listed five to 10 cases among students.
“This is nearly 10% of our students and staff. ... The numbers are real and we cannot keep them from increasing without your help,” officials said.
Indeed, with a growing number of studies finding that coronavirus transmission at schools is rare, some experts say what happens outside the classroom is as important as what’s happening inside school buildings.
“Being careful outside of school is the way to be safe inside school,” Dr. Ravi Kalhan, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine said Thursday.
“The bottom line is, the risk of transmission at schools comes from bringing groups of people together to gather at a time when the prevalence of COVID-19 is high in the community,” said Kalhan. “But at schools, particularly with younger kids, people are following the rules, wearing masks, social distancing and doing daily screenings ... doing all of the stuff known to mitigate the spread of the virus.”
Kalhan said traveling to other states, and celebrating the holidays with large groups of family members and friends, is far more likely to lead to transmission of the virus than attending school, which he described as “a very controlled environment.”
“Parents can’t say in the same breath that they want schools to be open, but then do whatever they want outside of school,” Kalhan added.
To be sure, the impossible task of controlling COVID-19 transmissions that occur outside of school buildings underscores the recent request from two statewide teachers unions that Illinois lawmakers “step in and set up clear enforceable COVID-19 metrics.”
“Some districts aren’t following their own plans, some districts aren’t following the state’s guidance, local health departments aren’t following the guidance from (IDPH) to work with school districts to determine whether students should go remote or put new protocols in place,” Kathi Griffin, the president of the Illinois Education Association, said Friday.
“In some cases local school boards are overriding the best advice of school superintendents,” Griffin said, adding: “We need lawmakers to step in and help us with these safety measures so we can safely reopen all schools and keep them open.”