In a Sept. 25 letter to the School District 65 community, Superintendent Devon Horton summarized a new set of criteria the District plans to monitor in deciding whether to open the schools for in-person learning.

“Based on the health data we are seeing week-to-week,” he said, “we are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to begin in-person learning as planned on Nov. 16.”

Dr. Horton also provided some additional data on the capacity of the schools to handle in-person learning and the percentage of teachers willing to return to the schools for in-person learning. It is unclear, though, how many students the District will be able to accommodate should in-person learning start in November.

Some Background

On July 22, administrators presented a plan that all students would begin the school year on Aug. 27 with remote learning. Under a second prong of the plan, an in-person option was scheduled to begin on Sept. 29, if it was safe to do so.

On Aug. 31, Dr. Horton gave an update on the criteria the District was looking at to reopen the schools for in-person learning. He said the goal was to have a test positivity rate of 3% or less in the Region in which Evanston is located, which is Region 10 – Suburban Cook County. At that time the 7-day test positive rate for Suburban Cook County was 6.9%. 

Just over 10 days later, on Sept. 11, Dr. Horton advised the community that he decided to delay the start of in-person learning until the start of the second trimester on Nov. 16.

The latest letter dated Sept. 25 summarizes a new set of criteria to monitor in deciding whether or not to open the schools for in-person learning on Nov. 16.

The Additional Criteria

The District is backing away from a 3% positivity rate as a determining factor, and appears willing to accept a slightly higher rate.

 Dr. Horton says, “COVID-19 numbers, locally and regionally, seem to be under control at the moment and there is evidence to demonstrate that opening schools with a slightly higher positivity rate (above 3%) is not having a significant impact on local health conditions in surrounding communities. That being said, we will move forward cautiously and with continued emphasis on health and safety. If there is a significant setback, we will need to reassess opening plans.”

In his letter, Dr. Horton cites additional IDPH Risk Metrics and IDPH’s Metrics for School Determination of Community Spread that the District will monitor. The metrics all relate to how Region 10 (Suburban Cook County) is meeting the criteria. The metrics are:

First, New Cases per 100,000 Population. IDPH’s target is that there be fewer than 50 new COVID-19 cases in a week per 100,000 people in a region. This measures the level of contagion and spread of the virus in the region and whether it is at a level that can be contained and suppressed. The most recent data posted by IDPH on Sept. 25 is that there were 89 new cases per 100,000 people in Suburban Cook County during the period Sept. 13-19.

To meet this criterion, the total number of new COVID cases in a 7-day period in Suburban Cook County must decline to about 1,335 new cases.

Second, a Test Positivity Rate of 5% or Less. IDPH’s target in the Metrics for School Determination of Community Spread includes a test positivity rate of 5% or less. If a community’s test positivity is high, it suggests that the community is not testing and not locating people who have milder or asymptomatic cases and who may be spreading the virus.

The Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) and a research collaboration agree that a test positive rate of 3% or below is a key indicator of progress towards suppression level testing.

The test positivity rate of Suburban Cook County as of Sept. 19 was 4.6. On Sept. 25, it was 5.1 %.

Third, New COVID-19 Cases in a Week. This criterion looks at the trend. The target is that the total number of new cases in the most recent seven-day period in a region should be decreasing or stable compared to the total number of cases in the prior 7-day period. IDPH says the total number of new cases in Suburban Cook County in the 7-day period Sept. 13-19, was 2,198, which was 281 more than the prior 7-day period.

Data published by IDPH on a daily basis reflects that the total number of new COVID-19 cases in Suburban Cook County in the 7-day period Sept. 20-26 was 2,360, or 162 more than the prior 7-day period.

Fourth, New COVID-19 Cases of Youth in a Week. This criterion also looks at the trend of new cases but for youth, which IDPH defines to be anyone under 20 years old. IDPH’s target is that the number of new cases for youth in the most recent 7-day period be decreasing or stable in relation to the total number of cases for youth in the prior 7-day period.

IDPH says that 330 youth in Suburban Cook County were tested positive for COVID-19 in the week Sept. 13-19, which was one more case than in the prior 7-day period.

While District 65 will monitor these criteria, Dr. Horton’s letter does not say what weight will be given to any specific criterion or if any is mandatory.

Space and Teachers

If in-person learning does go forward in November, the District will be limited in how many students it will be able to accommodate. Classroom space and the availability of teachers are both factors. Dr. Horton said:

  • “In order to maintain social distancing and compliance with Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) health and safety guidelines, we are able to bring back approximately 50% of students for in-person learning (based on total enrollment across the District).

     

  • “Based on our return data, approximately 60% of staff across the District will be returning in person; this includes 53% of teachers returning for in-person instruction.”

Taking these two factors together, it is unclear how many students the District will be able to accommodate.

In August, the District asked parents to state whether they wanted their children to participate in remote learning or to return to school for in-person learning. Dr. Horton said, 49% indicated a preference for in-person learning; 40% indicated a preference to continue with remote learning; and 11% did not indicate a preferred pathway.

“We are using all of this data to finalize a master schedule for in-person learning,” said Dr. Horton. “Bargaining and collaboration is still underway with D65 unions which may impact this schedule. As details are finalized, they will be communicated.”

In the meantime, the District is planning to host “Remote Learning + Camps” for a limited number of students at several schools. “This decision is being made in a conscious effort to be responsive to those most in need during a challenging time. These camps will begin October 5 through the start of in-person instruction,” said Dr. Horton. 

He added that the District is planning to partner with the McGaw YMCA and Y.O.U. to host afterschool enrichment programming to begin later in the month.

The District is also planning to bring back students with IEPs attending specialized programs at Park, Rice, RISE (Rigorous Individualized Specialized Program) at King Arts and STEP (Structured Teaching Education Program) at Lincoln at some point before Nov. 16.