DOWNERS GROVE – Three school districts in DuPage County have announced plans to pause in-person learning amid climbing COVID-19 case numbers, but Community High School District 99 in Downers Grove and districts in Wheaton and Glen Ellyn continue to bring students back to school this week while monitoring the metrics.
The decisions come as the DuPage County Health Department on Oct. 19 reported that community transmission of COVID-19 in the county now meets the “substantial” level.
Elmhurst Unit District 205, which had been one of the first DuPage school systems to bring back students this month in a hybrid model, announced Oct. 16 that it was transitioning back to remote learning for two weeks starting Oct. 21.
Community Unit District 201 in Westmont is moving to remote for “a minimum of two weeks” starting the week of Oct. 26. Naperville Unit District 203 will have most of its students continue with e-learning until Nov. 4.
While the substantial community transmission metric has led to a recommendation for 100% remote learning, DuPage health officials also noted in the Oct. 19 announcement that “school-level considerations are important as well” and that the decision is ultimately up to individual districts.
District 99 Superintendent Hank Thiele addressed the matter at the Oct. 19 school board meeting. The district’s two high schools, Downers Grove North and Downers Grove South, are bringing back students for two days a week in a modified hybrid schedule of in-person and remote learning that started Oct. 20.
“When these metrics were introduced, it was any one metric could put us in a substantial category,” Thiele said. “When those metrics were first released, the DuPage County Health Department was indicating that would require all schools to move 100% remote. Since then, they’ve kind of clarified that it’s not as cut and dry a hard line as they originally made it out to be.”
Thiele said that because of the mitigation strategies and safety protocols put in place by District 99 and the modified hybrid schedule that limits student numbers and movement in schools, coupled with the fact that the District 99 community doesn’t have local metrics that indicate outbreaks among the student and staff population, it is not a hard line on the 100% remote recommendation and still safe to move forward.
“It’s like making the call on a snow day,” Thiele said. “You have to look at all the factors, all the variables, what the safety experts are telling us, what the local conditions are in your community, and as the superintendent I have to make the decision.”
Thiele said the 119 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population countywide metric “is a concerning number,” but added that limiting the mixing of students throughout the day and the safety protocols will allow the district to maintain a safe learning environment.
District 99 brought back freshmen for a “dry run” of the modified hybrid schedule the week of Oct. 5, with 70% of families opting for the hybrid plan, and Thiele said they’ve had “absolutely no problems” with students following protocols.
Thiele is heartened by metrics that show that countywide there is not a significant increase in COVID-19 cases among youth and that there’s not a significant increase in the District 99 community.
“All indications from the health department is that our plan is safe for students to return to school under the modified hybrid plan,” Thiele said. “If these numbers continue to trend week after week in a negative direction, or take a fast dip in a negative direction, then we’ll have to cease in-person learning and move back to fully remote.
“There is nothing that says we should not bring students back for the first week of the modified hybrid plan. It just means to keep a close eye on it and diligently follow safety protocols not only in school but at home.”
Wheaton-Warrenville Community Unit School District 200, which is bringing back its last wave of middle and high school students this week in a hybrid schedule of in-person and remote learning, has no immediate plans to change course from in-person learning.
Superintendent Jeff Schueler said in a letter to families that there has been indications that DuPage County would likely move to “red status,” meaning substantial community spread, when metrics were released Oct. 17 based on conversations with county health officials, but that “this does not mean we will adjust our current plans based on that single metric.”
“The health department has agreed that it is appropriate to monitor this metric over a period of time because our school’s mitigation strategies have been effective,” Schueler said. “We do, however, need to double down on our collective commitment to the health and safety protocols that will keep our in-person learning experience as an option.”
Glenbard High School District 87, which moved to a hybrid schedule Oct. 19, has set parameters by which it would pivot back to full remote learning. They include that any single DuPage County Health Department metric is substantial for three weeks, that one or more schools have had to cease daily operations because of Building Operational Targets during that time, and that the county health department is concerned that spread is happening in the local school community.
“We feel confident that it is safe for students whose families chose our hybrid model to attend in person,” Superintendent David Larson said in a message to families. “The upgrade of one of the county’s six metrics to substantial does not meet our criteria to shift back to fully remote. We closely monitor the health department’s six metrics for schools, and I communicate with DuPage Health Department Executive Director Karen Ayala throughout each week.”