For the first time since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois students will soon begin a new school year in which hotly contested virus-mitigation mandates, including masking, have become relegated to the history books — at least for now.
“I’m cautiously optimistic, because when students returned last fall, we were hopeful that the 2021-2022 school year would be more ‘normal,’ and it turned out not to be,” said Terri Bresnahan, superintendent of Elk Grove Village-based Community Consolidated School District 59.
“I’m just more realistic now, and as we are making this latest transition, we need to ask ourselves, ‘How do we live with it?’ We just all need do our best, and do what we know works and is effective so we can keep our schools open for in-person learning,” Bresnahan said.
As Illinois students return to the classroom in the coming weeks for the 2022-23 school year — the fourth school year to unfold during the lingering pandemic — educators, parents and pediatricians are hopeful the worst of the COVID-19 disruptions are behind them.
But with the launch of the new school year coinciding with the surge of the highly contagious BA.5 variant, some say the state’s loosening of COVID-19 guidance could lead to a rash of student and staff absences and disruptions at Illinois schools this fall.
While the state’s school mask mandate was halted in spring amid a flurry of legal challenges to the governor’s executive order, this new school year will be the first since fall 2019 in which students are returning to classrooms with few if any COVID-19 restrictions.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said this week the district will “strongly recommend,” but not require masks for the upcoming school year, which begins Aug. 22. But the district’s weekly, optional in-school testing program will continue, and take-home tests will be available to students.
The school board recently approved an $85 million contract for this school year with Fisher Scientific, a company tasked with continuing to provide COVID-19 testing supplies and services to the state’s largest school district, which enrolls about 330,000 students.
At John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Principal Keir Rogers led a group of freshmen on a building tour earlier this week, a contingent of students who have been dealing with the pandemic since they were in fifth grade.
“Student mental health is an obvious concern right now, and these tours help acclimate freshmen to the school building, making them more comfortable, which helps ease their anxiety,” Rogers said.
While summer reading in the past featured an assortment of fiction and nonfiction books based on grade level, in an effort to support students’ emotional health, this year all 2,100 students at Hersey were assigned to read “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens” by Sean Covey, Rogers said.
“We’re mindful there still is a pandemic, and we need to respect that some people still feel it’s necessary to wear a mask,” Rogers said. “In our community, we put aside any judgment of the choice students and staff make about masks.”
Given the anticipated majority of students who will arrive in classrooms unmasked this fall, parent Jacqueline Helm is worried her daughter Bronwyn, 16, will have a tough time being one of the few teens still masking at Wheaton Warrenville South High School.
Helm said Bronwyn’s father is 78 and suffers from compromised heart function due to complications from cancer surgery, putting him in several high-risk categories for potentially severe illness from COVID-19. This has made the family extra cautious.
“My daughter is really anxious about going back to school because she is worried she’s going to be the only kid wearing a mask,” Helm said.
“It will not be any different than it was at the end of the last school year, when masks became optional, and Bronwyn will be facing the same situation,” Helm said. “I accept the school is doing what the majority wants them to do, but I would ask them, ‘Don’t forget about people with extreme circumstances.’”
Chris Beer, a Wilmette mother of two who is among the contingent of Illinois parents strongly opposed to the governor’s school mask mandate, said she hopes “the 2022-2023 school year gives families the choice to do what feels right for their children.”
“Mask mandates in school do more harm than good,” said Beer, whose children, 10 and 12, attend Wilmette School District 39.
“Mask wearing interferes with social development, including a child’s ability to identify emotions and connect with peers and educators,” Beer said.
Opinions about the pros and cons of school mask requirements vary dramatically among parents. But according to the latest guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health, when communities are at a high risk level, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking as masks are critical to keeping classrooms open for in-person learning.”
As of Friday, all six counties covering the Chicago area reported high community levels, an assessment based on a combination of hospitalization rates and the number of new COVID-19 cases in those counties. According to the CDC, 66 counties in Illinois are rated at high community level for COVID-19 transmission. An additional 31 counties are rated at medium community level.
“In all Community Levels, staff and students with COVID-19-like symptoms, a positive test, or exposure to someone with COVID-19 should wear a mask around others,” according to IDPH.
“Schools should also consider implementing screening testing for high-risk activities such as indoor sports and extracurricular activities, when students are returning from breaks, and for those serving students who are at high risk for getting very sick with COVID-19,” IDPH officials said.
The new language used by the state’s health department includes terms like “strongly encourage,” and “recommends,” rather than the previous “required,” which was abandoned when the state lifted its mask mandate in the spring.
A spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education said the “goal continues to be to have as many students as possible learning in schools, while protecting health and safety. “
“While we can’t predict what the school year will bring, we remain focused on supporting students’ recovery, both academically and with their mental health,” ISBE spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said in a statement.
ISBE distributed updated public health guidance to all Illinois schools earlier this month, along with “detailed guidance for evaluating symptomatic students and close contacts for exclusion, and guidance regarding school testing programs,” Matthews said.
The state guidance reflects CDC guidance, “which recommends a variety of different mitigations, such as masking and testing, depending on the community level,” Matthews said.
“School districts are strongly encouraged to follow the guidance; the only requirement, however, continues to be that all school personnel must be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 at least weekly,” Matthews said.
While the COVID-19 vaccine is now available for children as young as 6 months, dismal vaccination rates for youngsters nationwide has been disappointing to many pediatricians who contend the shots are the best and only way for schools to achieve the so-called return to “normal.”
In Illinois, only about 5.3% of children under age 5 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine nearly a month after the youngsters became eligible for the shots.
“It is not unexpected, but it is very disappointing to see this much resistance to COVID vaccines for these younger kids,” said Dr. Allison Bartlett, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine.
Bartlett hopes Illinois students, including her own children, will be able to experience in-person classroom learning this school year with minimal disruptions. But she remains concerned by the prevalence of the virus coupled with low vaccine rates.
“As a parent living through this with school-aged children, I know the disruptions have been huge … and COVID is not going away,” Bartlett said.
“The single most important thing parents can do is get their children vaccinated,” said Dr. Daniel Johnson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital.
“We know vaccination greatly reduces the risk of hospitalization, just like other vaccines for influenza, chicken pox and hepatitis,” Johnson said.
Now, with the BA.5 variant circulating widely, Johnson said the risk of transmission is higher “because it is dramatically more contagious than the earlier omicron variant.”
“I really can’t overstate enough that these vaccines are to protect children,” Johnson added.
Tony Sanders, superintendent of Elgin-based School District U-46, said he is encouraging families to get their students vaccinated, as well as continuing to follow common sense practices that are known to stem transmission of the virus.
“Everyone is looking forward to and hoping for a more normal school year, but in the back of my mind, I know what the data looks like, and it’s not lost on me that COVID will still be part of our lives, as is the flu,” Sanders said. “I think people have gotten more comfortable, and many have taken their masks off, and are not washing their hands as frequently. They also should get vaccinated, and get a flu shot, too.”
Sanders said U-46 will continue to rely on guidance from the local health departments regarding COVID-19 risk levels in the counties where the district’s 53 schools enrolling around 36,000 students are located.
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Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said that with 94% of union members vaccinated, officials will continue to monitor school districts’ safety protocol, including ensuring school buildings have “proper ventilation, soap in the bathrooms and hand sanitizer … all of the things that keep our students and staff healthy.”
While Illinois school employees are not required to mask, Montgomery said he believes most union members will opt to wear them anyway.
“We’re talking about teachers who have five sets of 20 to 30 students coming into their classrooms each day, and are walking through crowded hallways and lunchrooms,” he said.
“At the start of the school year, you walk in the school building and the floors are waxed, there are new books and supplies in the classrooms, and it feels just great,” Montgomery said. “It’s a bright start and a new start, and just like every school year teachers will be starting this new school year with hope and optimism.”