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Back to school: District 99 adjusts metrics, students to return on Tuesday

DOWNERS GROVE – Students in Community High School District 99 will return to school Tuesday in a hybrid model after the school board Saturday voted to adjust the metrics used to determine when students may attend school in person.

By a 4-2 vote at the special meeting, the board agreed to set the COVID-19 community transmission threshold for operating the hybrid schedule at 10% test positivity, or 200 cases per 100,000 persons in the district zip codes, based on the 14-day rolling average available at 3 p.m. the Friday before a school week.

The positivity rate available on Jan. 15 was 9.62%.

The board in December set the metrics for the second semester at below 9% test positivity, or if the number of new cases per 100,000 was fewer than 125 based on a 14-day rolling average. Based on that criteria, the district was in the hybrid of in-person and remote learning the week of Jan. 4, but went to fully remote last week when positivity spiked up. The 14-day average has trended down since its high this month of 11.20% on Jan. 10.

Under the district’s plan for the second semester, students choosing the hybrid model would be in school two mornings and two afternoons per week. The 10% number is the top of the range established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for students to be in-person.

“When community transmission indicates the number is below 10%, based on the experience we’ve seen, your kids will be safe with us,” Superintendent Hank Thiele said. “We strongly believe if we can keep kids safe at school our responsibility is to have them here. The 10% isn’t a random number. It reflects our experience and points back to the top of the range within the CDC guidance.”

Thiele’s recommendation to the board was that the decision be based off the 14-day rolling average available at 3 p.m. the Monday of a school week, but board member Terry Pavesich recommended the move back to the Friday before.

Pavesich and board members Michael Davenport, Daniel Nicholas and Rick Pavinato voted for the adjustment in the metrics.

“I have fundamental issues with this statistic being used as a metric for safety, but in regards to the 10%, I am strongly in favor of making that change now as a step toward getting kids back in school safety,” Nicholas said. “I strongly support making this move and encourage the district to continue to be flexible in looking at these metrics.”

But board members Sherell Fuller and Joanna Vazquez Drexler both expressed concern at making the adjustment in the metric so soon into the new semester. It was a feeling conveyed by Valerie Hardy of the Downers Grove Education Association, the union of district teachers, earlier in the meeting.

“Proposing a new set of metrics less than two weeks into the semester is both dispiriting and infuriating,” Hardy said. “The call for the vote at this time and supporting these changes now undermines the trust that DGEA membership has placed in the administration and the board to follow through on their own policies in a consistent manner. There is simply not enough data from the four days school was back. There appears to be no new information to change the metrics, other than a sheer desire to change them.”

“I’m not comfortable with voting for 10% at this time,” Vazquez Drexler said. “There’s not enough data.”

Pavesich said her issue with the inconsistency of having children in school one week and remote the next, but Thiele said he doesn’t believe that will be the normal moving forward.

“It’s a weird time, where we’re sitting right around this threshold,” Thiele said. “I think we will quickly fall back down below it where we’ll be in hybrid, or we’ll rapidly pass beyond it. It’s a weird spot we’re in today.”

Thiele said that the first full week of school this month, the district had about 89% of students in attendance on average in a class period. However, less than 1% of students were out because they were sick, the majority of absences students that were expected to be at school but chose to stay at home. The district has added additional contact tracers, and has followed up within 24 hours anyone home due to COVID-19 related illness.

“The first week back was very positive,” Thiele said. “Up to this point we are not tracking any illness back to school.”

Thiele also noted that testing and a vaccine could change how the district measures returning students to school. He plans on bringing a proposal to the board at its Jan. 25 meeting for a saliva-based COVID-19 testing program, with participation a requirement for those students choosing the hybrid model.

“From that, over time, we could lesson our dependence on community metrics and point more toward the actual rate of illness or presence of the virus within our school system,” Thiele said.

Thiele last week met with the regional Board of Education, where the process of putting together a vaccination program for school employees was tasked to the superintendents of the high school and elementary school districts. Thiele said they have spent time over the last week identifying a provider to do the vaccinations, and hopes to come up with a process to share with the board at the Jan. 25 meeting.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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