Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s announcement Wednesday, Aug. 4, of a school mask mandate gave schools across Illinois policy to build off as they prepare for the new school year.
Glencoe District 35 had just one day to react but administration was prepared and presented a learning plan during the board of education meeting Thursday, Aug. 5.
Superintendent Dr. Catherine Wang said that, in line with the mandate, masks will be required while all D35 students, staff and visitors are inside district buildings.
The district will also utilize opt-in COVID-19 testing for both students and staff and are collecting vaccination statuses from all eligible students and staff.
The information from both the testing and vaccination data will allow the district to be more nimble when there is a positive case within the district — one of many changes from last school year, Wang said.
“We want to keep students in school and learning and engaging with their classmates and their teachers, that’s our goal,” she said. “We have a commitment to do everything we can to keep that happening.”
The district will use the BinaxNow antigen test, a nasal-swab (not a longer nasopharyngeal swab) test that provides results in as few as 15 minutes. The tests will be utilized under three circumstances Wang said in an email to The Record: when students are showing symptoms of COVID-19 at school; when a student or staff member is identified as a “close contact” to a positive case; and as part of sample testing for unvaccinated students on a weekly basis.
Last school year, when a positive case was identified at a school, all the case’s close contacts would have to quarantine for upward of 14 days. The new protocol is more nuanced.
The Illinois Department of Public Health has OK’d a Test-to-Stay provision, which is available when a region is in the “moderate” category of virus transmission. The program allows an unvaccinated close contact to stay in school for as long as he or she tests negative during a one-week series of four tests.
The definition of “close contacts” has changed. Now, according to the Illinois State Board of Education, students may safely be 3 feet apart, instead of 6, if universal masking is in place.
Also, a vaccinated individual would not have to quarantine if in contact with a confirmed case, Wang said, adding that if masking and distancing rules are followed an entire class should not have to quarantine.
District 35 will also use the tests to take a sampling of unvaccinated students every week, Wang said.
The changes in guidance from ISBE and Cook County Department of Public Health allows District 35 to cultivate a school atmosphere closer to pre-COVID years, including decorations and furniture in classrooms, group learning and maskless outdoor activities.
Locker use is also returning in District 35, which has also enhanced its social-emotional infrastructure.
Many of the changes are possible, Wang said, with universal masking, a primary reason Wang said she would have recommended indoor masking to the board of education with or without Pritzker’s mandate.
“Some of the modified health protocols would not be available if we did not have universal masking,” Wang said.
Not returning to start the school year in a mobile or virtual learning option, a platform used across the country over the last year that Wang said is “not in the best interest or need for any of our children.”
Wang emphasized that protocol, whether from the ISBE or regional health departments, could change quickly based on the path of COVID-19. It is important, she said, for the D35 community to remain flexible.
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