The Winnetka District 36 Board of Education unanimously approved its 2021-2022 COVID-19 mitigation plan, along with their plans to return to full-time classroom teaching for the school year.
District administrators presented the plan at the board’s regular meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 18. It includes required indoor masking for anybody inside district buildings, on-site COVID-19 testing, and protocol for responding to cases of the coronavirus within the schools.
Superintendent Dr. Trisha Kocanda said a “tremendous amount of work” was done to get to where the schools are today.
“Our top priority throughout this pandemic has been, and continues to be, welcoming and keeping our students on campus for in-person learning,” she said. “The reliability of a safe school environment in the midst of a global pandemic offers our children both consistent learning experiences and a critical social network.”
Kocanda said last year, except for one pause, schools were open to in-person learning, and this year will increase in-person activity with with the return of recess and extracurricular activities.
In line with the state’s mandate, the district’s plan calls for mandatory masks while indoors for students, staff and visitors; however, outdoor activities, such as recess, will not require masking.
Six community members spoke to the board during the public comment section of the meeting. Five of them asked the school to make masks optional, while one speaker supported the school’s mitigation efforts.
Additionally, the school received five letters, which were read at the meeting, offering a variety of opinions on masking.
The school also received 63 emails from June 11 to Aug. 12 from various parents, which included 120 community members asking the school to not require students to wear masks, six people stating they will not be wearing masks, and a variety of emails ranging from those supporting masking, some concerned about the effects of masks on children, some questioning the legality of the executive order issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and others requesting a choice.
Kocanda said the district’s legal counsel reviewed Pritzker’s executive order and found it legally binding. The district’s votes were to get the school aligned with the executive order.
She added that the school will continue to monitor local data and said there may be flexibility as more information about COVID-19 and the Delta variant is discovered.
“Do we like COVID-19? No. Do we like social distancing? No. Do we prefer to teach with masks on? Absolutely not,” Kocanda said. “We do not choose this pandemic nor the conditions where we must teach and learn.
“Given our current guidance, when masking is in place and implemented for all, the number of individuals who would have to quarantine, stay away from school, significantly is minimized.”
Assistant Superintendent Kelly Tess highlighted specifics with the school’s mitigation efforts.
The biggest change from last year is the updated definition of “close contact.” Last school year, an entire classroom would have to quarantine if they were exposed to a positive COVID-19 case while in school. Now, if an individual is fully vaccinated and asymptomatic, he or she will not have to quarantine.
Additionally, individuals are only considered a “close contact” and require quarantine if they are indoors and within 3 feet of someone who has tested positive.
Tess also explained the school’s new on-site testing, which is optional for students and staff. The school will utilize BinaxNOW (an antigen test which can be conducted at home and provides results in 15 minutes) and SHIELD, a PCR test.
An unvaccinated student or staffer who has come into close contact with someone who has tested positive has four paths to return to school: 1.) They can quarantine for 14 days; 2.) They can quarantine for 10 days if they remain symptom-free; 3.) They can quarantine for seven days if they remain symptom-free and have a negative PCR test on the sixth day; and 4.) They can participate in the Test to Stay option.
Test to Stay is rapid antigen testing in which the close contact is tested by a nurse on days one, three, five and seven at school. If they are negative and asymptomatic, the person can remain in school.
Tess added the Test to Stay option is only available if the positive case is not a family member of the close contact.
She also provided updated vaccination data: 151, or 39.3 percent, of the 384 district students 12 and older have been vaccinated, with 97 percent of those reporting they are fully vaccinated. Data is still being collected on the staff vaccination levels.
Communitywide, as of Aug. 12, 64.9 percent of Winnetka residents have been fully vaccinated, while 80.2 percent have received at least one dose.
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Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.