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Watch now: For Central Illinois schools, COVID-19 has been stress test

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Grove Elementary School in Normal, Illinois, welcomes back kindergarten through second grade students for the first day of school during the pandemic.

BLOOMINGTON — The roller coaster of COVID over the past 10 months has been especially twisty for parents, students, teachers and school administrators. 

Public districts in Illinois were shuttered in the spring as cases spiked. Over the summer, staff determined whether to have in-person or virtual courses in the fall, or a mix. But since then, ever-higher infection rates and pockets of cases have prompted officials to alter plans, all while trying to keep kids learning. 

McLean County Unit 5 schools on Friday announced a switch to remote learning starting Wednesday. It and Bloomington District 87 were two of the county’s only districts that started the fall semester remote, but later transitioned to a hybrid model of learning.

Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle said while metrics point to “substantial community spread,” it doesn’t seem to be caused by the schools being open.

“I am extremely proud — our students are doing a great job wearing masks, our staff are doing a great job,” she said. “It’s definitely going to take the community making good choices, following guidance and guidelines.”

The district administration is hoping to return to hybrid learning soon, but “this will depend on the status of COVID-19 and the guidance we receive from state and local officials.”

District 87 announced Wednesday remote learning will be extended to all students around the upcoming holidays. All students will learn from home the week of Thanksgiving, Nov. 23 and 24, the week after Thanksgiving, Nov. 30 to Dec. 4 and the week after winter break, Jan. 5 to 8. 

"The reason we’re doing that is simply to reduce the risk," Superintendent Barry Reilly told the school board. "We feel that we’ll have a lot of folks who spend time with family and perhaps extended family that they might not see otherwise. And so obviously when you do that the risk goes up.” 

The Catholic Diocese of Peoria announced Friday all 42 schools will transition to remote learning next week, expecting to return in mid-January.

“It’s precautionary,” said Sean Foster, principal at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington. With 26 counties in the diocese, “it’s just really the escalation of the positivity and exposure rates for COVID-19 in the state of Illinois but in particular the counties that our schools reside in.”

The diocese previously said schools will take an “adaptive pause” after winter break, which means students will begin the semester with an additional week of remote learning before the schools open to in-person instruction Jan. 19.

For school officials, it is a tightrope like no other, balancing safety and education.

At Tri-Valley in Downs, Superintendent David Mouser said, “We’ve had a good run” with some short periods of remote learning since the school year began but no complete shutdowns. 

Lexington High School spent four days in remote learning after an uptick in cases, including two positives in the last week of October.

Because of students who had close contact with the positive cases, 79 students were in isolation or quarantine, he said, “which is about half of our high school,” Superintendent Paul Deters said.

All of those students were cleared to return to class and in-person instruction resumed last week with no positive cases among staff or students, but “we’re keeping a very close eye on it,” Deters said.

El Paso Gridley schools have taken a similar approach, transitioning classrooms or grade levels to remote learning for two-week stints when the number of quarantining students peaks.

“We’re just working through those situations … and so far after their two-week stints, they’ve been able to come back to in-person and we’ve hit the ground running,” Superintendent Brian Kurz said.

But last week the entire high school took time outside the classroom after more than 20% of students were reported to be in quarantine. 

“We had a couple positive cases which led to some students being quarantined. We also had several students quarantine from contact outside of school in different settings,” Kurz said. “We felt like, as a precautionary measure, it made sense to go remote with the high school for two weeks.”  

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As of Nov. 6, the El Paso Gridley school district had 65 students and eight staff members in quarantine; four students and four staff members were isolated after testing positive. 

There are other concerns, too.

Olympia High School closed its doors to students last week after the absence rate passed 15%, administrators said.

Superintendent Laura O’Donnell said the district is hoping to resume in-person learning, but “we’ll have to wait to see.”

The other factor is staffing. In Olympia, no staff members have tested positive, but some have had to quarantine after coming into close contact with a positive case.

Given the regional shortage of substitutes, O’Donnell said, “There are days that we are still struggling to cover all open positions.”

The high school’s move to remote learning was planned to last two weeks, starting Nov. 2, but on Wednesday the district announced in-person instruction would be on hold for the district’s oldest students until Nov. 30 after Thanksgiving break. 



 Photos: Schools across the Midwest face new dangers in a world of COVID-19



Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.


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