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What will the state’s new guidance mean for McHenry County schools?

New guidance for in-person school released by the state Tuesday – which relaxes social distancing for students and vaccinated staff, among other things – has McHenry County school districts feeling encouraged in the journey to normalcy, but does not solve all of their problems, superintendents said.

Huntley School District 158 Superintendent Scott Rowe said as his staff has continued to grow in their understanding of how best to serve students in this time, he is glad that the state has shown its guidance to be flexible to that growth as well.

“The best thing that we can do is learn from our experiences and adapt and evolve going forward,” Rowe said. “I’m pleased with the adjustments that they have made, but that doesn’t mean that they are without challenges that remain for us.”

The Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education issued new guidance for in-person school on Tuesday that defines social distance as 3 to 6 feet for students and fully vaccinated staff and directs schools to return to in-person learning “as soon as practicable in every Illinois community.”

“We just received the information today and need some time to study it,” Woodstock School District 200 Superintendent Michael Moan said in a written statement Tuesday afternoon. “Once we’ve determined what the district’s options are according to these new guidelines, we’ll talk over next steps.”

The guidance stresses that in-person learning time should be prioritized over extracurricular activities, sports or other events and lifts the capacity limit on lunchrooms, replacing it with guidance that schools can accommodate as many students as possible as long as social distancing is still being adhered to.

The new guidance also drops the recommendation that schools screen for COVID-19 symptoms on school grounds, but districts may continue the practice if preferred. Instead, the report recommends that students, staff and visitors self-certify that they are symptom-free before entering school buildings.

For a district like Marengo Union Elementary School District 165, which has been fully in person since the beginning of the school year, Superintendent Lea Damisch said students won’t really experience any changes with the new guidance.

“I’m not going to change what I’m doing at this point of the game,” Damisch said. “It’s just too hard to change right now. But looking to the fall, [this] totally changes up what we can do.”

Damisch said the new guidance “embraces what we’ve done all year,” serves as proof that her in-person model is a successful one and, most of all, paints a picture of forward movement going into next school year.

Specifically, the new social distancing guidance will allow her schools to return to their traditional educational models once again as class sizes can increase, allowing specialized teachers to return to their regular duties rather than leading a class. She said she has already worked out some of the numbers and having desks situated 4 feet apart instead of 6 will free up math and reading specialists to resume the small group interventions that make a big difference to struggling students.

District 158 is already on track to bring its elementary students back for full, in-person learning March 15, but Rowe said the new guidance addresses two of the district’s three largest hurdles in bringing back sixth through 12th grades, which are currently in a hybrid model.

The first two – social distancing in classrooms and lunchroom capacity – will likely be alleviated by the new guidance, Rowe said, although his staff haven’t worked out the logistics yet to see how much of an impact it will make. He and his team will be looking into any and all “possibilities for expansion” at the secondary education level in the coming days to see if they can alter their reopening plan for the rest of the year.

The third challenge faced by District 158 – reduced bus capacity, combined with a national shortage of bus drivers – remains as the new guidance maintained the bus capacity limit at 50 students per bus, Rowe said.

“I think it should change,” he said. “It puts an additional strain on our families to drive their kids to school, but it also … if we expand in-person learning, my concern is it could create an equity issue for us. [As] those who can drive their kids to school can come with reduced spacing. Yet, if you rely on us to drive you to and from school, you may not have that same opportunity.”

The five mitigation strategies previously recommended by health officials – the use of face masks, social distancing, contact tracing and isolation/quarantine procedures, increased school-wide cleaning procedures and hand washing – also remain in effect in the new guidance.

Districts should also continue to offer a remote learning option for families who prefer to keep their children home, according to the guidance.

“Consistent with the updated guidance from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], families of students who are at increased risk of severe illness [including those with special health care needs] or who live with people at increased risk must be given the option of remote instruction,” according to the guidance.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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