Schools Prepare for Students Return Amid Spread of COVID-19 Variant

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Courtesy of Eric Allix Rogers (Flickr CC0)

Summer break is almost over and schools are preparing for the return of students. Some are concerned about the lax virus-mitigation mandates with the COVID-19 subvariant, BA.5, being highly contagious.

This year Illinois students will not be mandated to wear face masks. In February, Governor J.B. Pritzker announced that students and staff were no longer required to wear face masks. However, if a mask mandate for schools “needs to go into effect in the future” the state still holds the authority to set it.

“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,” stated Terri Bresnahan, superintendent of Elk Grove Village-based Community Consolidated School District 59.

Last year, many were hoping the worst of COVID-19 was over, however, they found themselves having to go to remote learning more often than not. This was a struggle for many students who did not have internet access and those who function better in the school environment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believe schools and early care and education (ECE) programs could use a variety of actions every day to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, like COVID-19.

One of the recommendations the CDC suggest is for schools to stay up to date on routine vaccinations. They also said staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations is the best public health strategy to prevent severe disease.   The agency stated that ECE programs, schools, and health departments can promote vaccinations in several ways:

  • Providing data on COVID-19 vaccines and other recommended vaccines. These facilities should take into account the needs of individuals who require language services and those with disabilities who require accessible formats.
  • Establish supportive policies and practices that make getting vaccinated easy and convenient, for example, a workplace vaccination program or providing paid time off for individuals to get vaccinated or assist family members receiving vaccinations.
  • Encourage evidence-based trust and confidence in vaccines.
  • Make vaccinations available on-site by hosting school-located vaccination clinics, or connect eligible teachers,  students, staff, children, and families to off-site vaccination locations.
  • Optimizing ventilation and improving indoor air quality to reduce the risk of germs and contaminants spreading through the air.
  • Reinforcing proper handwashing to lower the risk of spreading viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
  • Cleaning surfaces at least once a day to reduce the risk of germs spreading by touching surfaces.
  • Individuals with symptoms of infectious diseases, including COVID-19, influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and gastrointestinal infections should stay home and get tested for COVID-19.
Courtesy of Montse PB (Flickr CC0)

This is the fourth school year is about to unfold during the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. Parents, pediatricians, educators, and students are hoping the worst of the viruses’ disruptions are behind them.

However, with the BA.5 variant being highly contagious they are very concerned the state’s lax virus-mitigation mandates will lead to a rash of staff and students absences and disruptions at schools this fall.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said this week the district will “strongly recommend,” but not require masks for the 2022-2023 school year. The district will still offer take-home tests to students and continue its weekly, optional, in-school testing program.

Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Jackie Matthews  stated the “goal continues to be to have as many students as possible learning in schools while protecting health and safety.” Adding, “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.”

Illinois Department of Public Health believes those who live, work, or will be attending school in communities with high COVID-19 levels and have “symptoms, a positive test, or exposure to someone with COVID-19 should wear a mask around others.”

IDPH officials also believe schools should contemplate “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 [coronavirus].”

The ISBE has already distributed updated public health guidance to all Illinois schools. Matthews said it included, “detailed guidance for evaluating symptomatic students and close contacts for exclusion, and guidance regarding school testing programs.”

“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,” explained Matthews.

People are asked to be considerate of one another. There will be some who want to or need to wear a mask. It is expected that many people will choose not to mask up to go to class and that’s okay. Parents, teachers, and staff want everyone to respect each other’s decisions on the matter.

Written by Sheena Robertson


Chicago Tribune: Schools ‘cautiously optimistic’ about new year, but COVID-19 worries linger. ‘Don’t forget about people with extreme circumstances.’
WTTW: Mask Mandate for Illinois Schools to End Monday, Gov. Pritzker Announces
CDC: Operational Guidance for K-12 Schools and Early Care and Education Programs to Support Safe In-Person Learning
Illinois Department of Health: IDPH & ISBE Joint Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in Schools

Top and Featured Image Courtesy of Eric Allix Rogers‘ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image Courtesy of Montse PB’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License


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