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At the District 65 School Board meeting held on Dec. 7, five parents, two of whom are pediatricians, urged the School Board to open the schools for in-person learning. They argued that other schools have safely engaged in in-person learning and that it is essential for a child’s social and emotional development.
So far, the School Board has not taken a vote in public on whether to open the schools for in-person learning and has not taken a vote on the criteria to use in making that determination. The Board has left the decision to Superintendent Devon Horton, who has kept the Board and the community apprised of the metrics he is using and his decisions.
Most recently, on December 11, Dr. Horton posted a letter to the community that provided information on the District’s tentative reopening plan for Jan. 19. Dr. Horton said, “I can assure you that our goal remains to get students back for in-person learning as soon as it is safe to do so.
“On Tuesday, January 19, our plan is to tentatively launch our hybrid learning model which includes several learning pathways for students. As I have previously shared, we are providing a two-week quarantine period after winter break to support safety for all. The pathways are intended to maximize the number of persons who can be accommodated for in-person learning while providing increased support for students who need it most. In addition, efforts are being made to maintain student educator relationships to the maximum extent possible.”
The in-person model has changed since it was presented before the start of the school year. Under the current model all student would have remote learning on Mondays, and:
· K-5 students whose parents indicated a preference for in-person learning would attend half-day sessions in-person on Tuesdays-Fridays, either a morning or afternoon session. They would attend the remainder of the instructional day in remote synchronous and asynchronous learning (including math and literacy practice, PE, Fine Arts, Science/Social Studies).
· If K-5 students have three priority flags, they would have full day in-person learning with an in-person session in the morning and supervision for asynchronous learning in the afternoon on Tuesdays-Fridays.
· Students in grades 6-8 with one or more priority flags would have full-day in-person learning on Tuesdays -Fridays.
All other students would have remote learning. There are some variations for the middle schools.
Dr. Horton’s letter says a decision has not yet been reached whether schools will reopen for in-person learning and that the decision will be made based on metrics adopted by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and some additional metrics adopted by the District. (Described below) He said, as of the time of his letter, the metrics were not met, but that the District was continuing to monitor conditions and that a decision regarding reopening will be communicated no later than Jan. 5.
Parents’ Calls for In-Person Learning
Parents’ concerns were read at the School Board’s Dec. 7 meeting, four days before Dr. Horton’s latest plan was posted.
Bridget Wild, M.D. said in her letter that she was speaking “as a pediatrician in Evanston, an ally working to be anti-racist and a District 65 parent.”
She said, “My voice is solitary in this letter, but I am not alone in my perspective and I am coming from a place of grave concern for every child in our District,” she said.
“First, I want to say that while emotions run deep – and understandably – surrounding the decision about whether or not it is safe to return to learning in classrooms together, I hold the basic assumption of every administrator, Board member and teacher that we share the same end desires. We want equitable and excellent learning outcomes for every child in this District. And we want that to occur in a safe environment for every team member involved in that experience. At the time of this writing, I am painfully aware that we are amid a surge of COVID cases and increased health care utilization.
She said that schools play an invaluable role beyond simply teaching math and reading. “Schools are an indispensable piece of the heart and soul if our children’s life experience.”
While saying that she has “experienced the very best efforts of teachers to every student’s needs through exclusive remote work,” she added, “Our children need to be in school at school.
“National and international data consistently show that in-person elementary and middle school does not increase spread of COVID in the community. Editorial after editorial and academic paper after academic paper is highlighting the growing pediatric mental health emergency and widening educational outcome disparities for Black and Brown students.
Furthermore, when someone tests positive, who has been in in-person school, there has not been spread of additional cases within the school, so long as masks are worn. Children can and do wear masks.
“A large group of local pediatric providers are coming together with objective data to show Evanston is not exempt from this experience. There is a steep rise and severe mental health crisis among children. Families are withdrawing their kindergarteners completely. Some parents spend all day trying to encourage their child to just log on to the iPad, something I never thought I’d say as a parent of three who have at times an unhealthy love affair with screens. Developmentally, their relationship to learning has been irreversibly damaged.
“In the coming weeks, this surge will abate, and we will hold our breath waiting to hear whether in-person schooling will occur this school year.”
She asked the District to publish the list of people who were providing public health guidance to the District.
She added, “While we are on the precipice of having a publicly available vaccine, this vaccine is not for children and will still take years for COVID-19 to run out to wide circulation. Universal immunization cannot and should not be a requirement for D65 to return to the classroom.
“Additionally, masks will very likely need to be a part of daily reality for the next one to two years, and they work. In the rare instance when someone does contract COVID while they are masked, there is even protective data to show that illness severity is less due to lower inoculation load.
“Finally, please know that there are experts in our own community ready, willing and eager to assist.
Deepa Nair, M.D., a mother of a second-grader, said she was writing her letter as a concerned parent of an elementary school aged child in District 65 and as “a pediatrician who works in the pediatric emergency department caring for the many children throughout the Chicagoland area who have been presenting with their physical illnesses and injuries, but also at alarming rates for mental health crisis.
“I am speaking from the perspective of a physician who has spent many hours over the past nine months caring for families and children who have had COVID-19, are concerned about COVID-19, or have come seeking psychiatric care for their children who are struggling in isolation, and with virtual school for our ongoing pandemic.
“Among the factors that need to be weighed, I believe that the impact on the mental health of our children has not been given fair consideration. We are seeing a greater than 70% increase in visits for mental health crisis at our institution. And I can tell you from personal experience on the front lines, the most common thread amongst these kids has been stress, depression, and anxiety exacerbated by social isolation. School is more than a place our children receive an education. As parents and educators, we all know the importance of socialization with their peers for all ages of children.
“As physicians, we see the effects of socialized isolation that seem to impact those who have been historically marginalized, even more so, as many of their parents struggle to work while having their children navigate virtual schooling independently. I understand the many varying concerns and opinions regarding the decision on opening schools.
“But I implore you to base decision on scientific data. There have been multiple published studies showing that in-person school attendance has not caused spikes in case counts, and the school-based transmission is exceedingly unlikely.
“Anecdotally, I will tell you that all of the pediatric patients I have tested for COVID-19, the transmission has come from parents or social gatherings where the attendees are not masked. Of all the patients I have tested who have been lucky enough to be in-person at school, I have not tested any patients who have become infected from a COVID-19 cousin, students here in class. We know that masking is highly effective at reducing transmission rates. I know that we all have a common goal for equity and quality education for all children. However, as I look at other districts, I realize that our children are already disadvantaged as compared to some of these peer groups that have returned to school in person. I fear that our District will face even bigger challenges in the upcoming year if we do not work together to find a safe path to return to in person learning.”
Dr. Nair said the surge in COVID-19 cases will abate and the District needs to consider the path to return to in-person learning that will provide kids the “educational experience that they need and deserve.” She too asked the District to disclose who was advising the District on the guidelines to use in deciding whether to return to in-person learning.
She proposed that that the “District take advantage of the many experts in the medical field that live in Evanston, have children within District 65, and who are eager to assist.”
She acknowledged the “extraordinary efforts put forth by our teachers to provide our children their education through remote learning thus far this year,” but said “I can’t help but think about all the missed opportunities for education as we struggled through technology issues and challenges and keeping children engaged with online virtual learning for six plus hours a day.”
Joel Sternstein, a District 65 parent, said, “There are nearby districts and even private and parochial schools in Evanston, allowing in-person instruction. While there have been sporadic [incidents] of COVID, there have been no mass outbreaks among students and their teachers at these schools. Why can’t District 65 allow in person instruction? Why can’t District 65 imitate what these other successfully open schools have done?
“I’m also very concerned with the lack of vigorous instruction during online schooling,” he added.
Susan Felts, a District 65 parent, said other suburbs have been able to open their schools, and said closing the schools for in-person learning has had a larger impact on lower income families who cannot afford expensive therapy that most kids who have been isolated forced to stay home out of school are needing.
Lauren Janus, a District 65 parent said research shows that COVID infection rates within the elementary schools are substantially lower than they are in the general public. “At the same time, the risk to young children of prolonged online learning is very high, especially among Black, Brown and economically disadvantaged households.”
She urged the Board to reopen at least the elementary schools.
District 65’s Metrics to Re-open
In his Dec. 11 letter, Dr. Horton says that IDPH’s metrics that the District is using are the metrics “aligned to those recommended for additional mitigation measures by the Illinois Department of Public Health.” These metrics are used by Governor JB Pritzker and IDPH to determine when additional restrictions are necessary to combat a resurgence of the virus.
The District uses the metrics as applied to Region 10, which is Suburban Cook County, which includes the far south and southwestern suburbs, but not Chicago. In addition, the District has adopted five District-level metrics.
The District says, “If any of the below metrics are true, or combination thereof, students will participate in remote learning until conditions have improved.”
The State’s Metrics are:
· Sustained increase in 7-day rolling average (7 out of 10 days) in the positivity rate, AND any one of the following: a) Sustained 7-day increase in hospital admissions for COVID-19 like illness, or b) reduction in hospital capacity threatening surge capabilities (ICU capacity or medical/surgical beds under 20%)
· Three consecutive days averaging greater than or equal to 8% positivity rate (7 day rolling
The District 65’s Metrics are:
· Positivity rate exceeding 3% in attendance-area zip codes
· Advisement by the Evanston Health and Human Services Department and/or Skokie Health Department to suspend in-person learning for any public health-related reason
· Inability to sustain staffing directly associated with classrooms
· Inadequate access to PPE and cleaning materials
· Inability to sustain evolving health protocols and guidance
The State metrics adopted by District 65 do not include the “Metrics for School Determination of Community Spread” posted by IDPH. These metrics include there be a) a seven-day test positivity rate of 5% or less; b) that the number of new cases per 100,000 population, meet a target of 50 or less; c) the total number of new cases in a week be decreasing or stable when compared to the prior week; and d) that the number of new cases in week for youth be decreasing or stable when compared to the prior week.
In his Dec. 11 letter, Dr. Horton said, “Based on what we are seeing currently, this will require lower positivity rates and less strain on our healthcare system.”
As of Dec. 14, the seven-day test positivity rate for Suburban Cook County was 12.2%, according to data posted by IDPH.