Local school districts look to reopen during COVID-19 surge


Daily file photo by Cynthia Zhang

School districts in the Chicago area are taking a variety of different responses to the surge in COVID-19 case numbers.

Olivia Alexander and Aviva Bechky

As Cook County COVID-19 cases reach new peaks, local school systems must decide whether and how to reopen schools. Here’s how three local school districts are approaching the start of the spring semester.

Evanston/Skokie School District 65

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 students participated in e-learning on Monday and will return to the classroom Tuesday. 

Chute Middle School and Oakton Elementary School parent Colin Murphy said his family is nervous to send their two children back to school in person this week. Murphy said the district doesn’t seem to be prepared in the case it has to return to e-learning. 

“I foresee there being a ton of infections and positive tests, teachers not being able to come in and there not being enough staff to cover it, so we’re gonna have to go to a hard pause and quickly pivot to remote,” Murphy said. “I’m more worried about the disruption from a sudden unanticipated pivot to going online.” 

For District 65, the return follows an “adaptive pause” instated on Dec. 23, which required students at some middle schools to attend class remotely the day before Winter Break. On Dec. 31, the district announced that students would participate in e-learning on Jan. 10, the first day of class after the break. 

District 65 held additional SHIELD saliva testing clinics for students and staff on Friday and Monday.

The district also reemphasized the importance of vaccinations and booster shots, mask wearing, social distancing and staying home when sick. In a Friday email, the district announced an updated five-day quarantine period in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Rachel McCormick, who has a kindergartener at Lincoln Elementary School, said these measures aren’t enough. As her son returns to the classroom, she believes he’ll be exposed to COVID-19 within the first 10 days of school. 

“I’m severely immunosuppressed and a single mom, and if something happens to me, I have no backup plan,” McCormick said. “For families like (mine), I feel like there should have been another option offered. I feel like the high risk families, the immunosuppressed families, are just being told ‘good luck.’”

Evanston Township High School/District 202

ETHS returned to in-person classes Monday after Winter Break, as originally scheduled. Prior to the break, the school took a weeklong “adaptive pause” due to rising case numbers. 

All students will be tested for COVID-19 during gym or wellness classes Tuesday and Wednesday. All students will then be tested weekly unless their parent or guardian opted out on or before Dec. 23.  

ETHS updates a COVID-19 case numbers dashboard every Friday.

“The testing is a really good idea,” ETHS senior Eden Drajpuch said. “(From a) mental health standpoint, I’m very happy to still have an in-person option at this point. But from a COVID standpoint, I am a little bit nervous about it.”

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said places to eat lunch will be expanded where possible, according to a Friday email to students and families. All students are expected to wear masks except when eating or drinking. 

ETHS offers guidelines for what to do after COVID exposure here.

Chicago Public Schools 

CPS will hold in-person classes Wednesday following several days of cancelled school. Staff will report to schools Tuesday, but students will not have class, in-person or remote, unless individual principals have said otherwise. 

Last Tuesday — just two days after returning from Winter Break — the Chicago Teachers Union voted to stop reporting to work. The city refused its request for remote learning. Schools have been entirely shut down since Wednesday. 

The CTU’s House of Delegates approved a return to work Wednesday even though Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration did not satisfy its biggest demands — temporary remote learning and an “opt-out” testing program. Per the CTU, the entirety of the union membership must now vote to approve the agreement. 

The agreement includes provisions to increase COVID-19 testing and establish metrics for closing individual schools if 40% of students are quarantined or 30% of teachers are absent for two consecutive days. 

Xochitl Infante, a social studies teacher at Corliss High School and a former union delegate, is frustrated with the city’s response and worried about both the pandemic and her wages. Teachers aren’t paid while schools are shut down.

“We have no problem educating these kids, but safely,” she said Sunday. 

Throughout the process, students and families have been left in limbo, uncertain whether they will have school the next day.

Laila McKinney, a senior at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School, is frustrated with communication and lack of schoolwork.

“It’s very annoying when you’re being put on hold,” McKinney said Sunday. “I absolutely hated remote. But for everybody’s safety, we need to be remote.”

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Twitter: @oliviagalex

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @avivabechky

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