Omicron surge and schools: Will they stay open? Can they stay open?

We are hearing from many parents who are grappling with the decision to send their kids back to school, especially at districts that are opening Monday Jan 3rd, including Chicago Public Schools. There is also a lot of confusion about quarantine guidance from the CDC and we wanted to provide some information.

Things we know about this latest surge: Illinois is seeing record case numbers, with over 30,000 cases/day reported a few days ago and a 16.7% case positivity rate in Chicago prior to NYE gatherings. The case rate is now twice what last winter’s peak was. And, despite the fact that many in our state are now vaccinated and infections are on the whole milder for the vaccinated,  the hospitalization rate is already at last winter’s peak as well. 

Chicago Sun Times Illinois obliterates daily COVID-19 case record with more than 30K positive tests

Cloth masks are not working to prevent omicron spread: this variant might not be more severe, but according to experts it is more infectious and anyone going into a school building should wear upgraded masks like KN95s, KF94s, etc.  We are reading about some states providing these masks to school districts, and believe Illinois schools should be doing the same. 

Boston Globe As experts advise better masks to protect against Omicron, government is starting to provide them 

Staffing is likely to be a major problem with the rapid spread of the omicron variant. The teacher shortage in Illinois has been an ongoing problem across the state, and lack of substitute teachers has increased during the pandemic. Districts already had closures this fall due to lack of subs. Earlier this fall, data from CPS showed substitute requests were only being filled 63% of the time.

We know that being vaccinated is critical to having a less severe case, yet fewer than 1 in 5 children ages 5-11 are fully vaccinated in IL.

Due to the unprecedented surge, some school districts (and private schools) in Illinois just this weekend have decided to move to remote learning for a week or two. These include District 33 West Chicago, District 189 East St. Louis, District 219 Niles Township, District 69 Skokie/Morton Grove, District 150 Peoria, District 300 which includes parts of Algonquin, Barrington Hills, Hoffman Estates, and eight unionized Chicago charter schools. There may be more in the coming days as schools deal with staffing shortages from positive cases.

Although the state's largest district plans to open tomorrow, a Chalkbeat Chicago reporter tweeted this evening are that CPS has just upped the bonus for substitutes, and WBEZ is reporting late-breaking news that CTU "has scheduled a vote for its more than 25,000 members on Tuesday during the day, asking if they support refusing to work in-person starting Wednesday and working virtually instead."

And across the country, these are some of the districts that are going remote for a short period or delaying the return from winter break: Atlanta Public Schools, Baltimore City, Cleveland, Detroit and Ann Arbor MI, District of Columbia, Madison and Milwaukee in WI, Newark, Camden, (and a number of other NJ districts), and Prince Georges County MD. 

What’s the guidance for students and staff who test positive?

Last week, the CDC announced they were lowering isolation time for people who test positive from 10 days to 5 days. But on December 29th, they updated their website to say this change doesn’t apply to schools, and students and staff should still isolate for ten days. We have barely seen this information covered anywhere though. 

From the CDC page about covid and schools, which was updated on 12/29/2021:

"How long should a student or staff member with COVID-19 isolate?

People can spread the virus that causes COVID-19 for a full 10 days from when they develop symptoms, even if they are feeling better. People who have tested positive, but do not have symptoms may spread the virus before they have symptoms or even spread the virus if they never have symptoms at all. For this reason, isolation should last at least 10 days. Day 0 is the day symptoms began or the day the person took a test that had a positive result."

In addition, ISBE announced on 12/31 that they are sticking with the 10 day guidelines and are waiting for more info from the CDC before they make further changes. 

Shaw Local State Board of Education: New CDC isolation guidance won’t apply for IL schools

It is unclear whether districts have received this information, and we have heard that some districts already sent notification to parents that their child should isolate for five days if they test positive. If your school is sharing info that contradicts the CDC and ISBE guidelines, share these links with them.

Sign petition opposing anti-covid mitigation

While families and school districts worry about how to keep schools open safely during this huge surge in cases, litigation in opposition to public health measures in IL schools is proceeding. This lawsuit, filed in back in October, was brought by parents of public school students against Governor Pritzker, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education, and their respective school districts. Each group of parents gave Attorney Tom Devore $5000 totalling $725K donated to make our schools and communities less safe.

On Tuesday January 5th, the Circuit Court of Sangamon County, where the parent lawsuits have been consolidated, will hold a hearing on a motion for a temporary restraining order sought by parents in one of the actions, the one mentioned in this petition we’ve shared previously. That action has more than 750 named plaintiff parents and encompasses more than 150 school districts.  The petition is still live, and if you haven’t signed it yet, please do so in order to voice your opposition to this litigation.

Sign petition: Dismiss Lawsuit to Force Children to Be Exposed to COVID-19 in IL Schools

Public health measures protect all of us; the right for all our children to attend public school in a safe and healthy environment certainly outweighs the right to defy mitigation measures and spread disease.

We hope everyone stays safe and healthy during this stressful and unprecedented time. These are very difficult decisions, and we know there are a multitude of variables to consider. It is important to reach out to not just your school administration and board members, but also your elected officials, including your federal and state legislators, about the problems that the continued pandemic is presenting for your family and school community! 

Questions? Comments? Get in touch via [email protected]