The Jacksonville School District 117 Board held an emergency meeting Friday evening to review the Return to Learning plan, after updated guidelines from the Illinois Department of Public Health left districts across the state questioning if in-person learning would be possible at all.
Jacksonville School District 117 Superintendent Steve Ptacek says there were many times over the last nine days he was all but convinced the district had no other choice than to start the year with remote learning.
On August 12th, the Illinois State Board of Education released updated guidelines regarding what districts should do if a student, faculty or staff member tested positive for COVID-19, or had COVID like symptoms while at school.
Ptacek says the specifics pertaining to those with COVID like symptoms meant the district would likely not be able to keep staff in buildings.
“Almost all of the symptoms, all of us face at least on a regular basis and it was very clear, you must send them home until they have a negative test result, or an alternative diagnosis from a healthcare provider. So your hay fever, cough or abdominal pain for example, any of the things that were mentioned in the guidelines, all of those were going to result in sending staff home and expecting them to go to the doctor and have an alternative diagnosis. We just can’t operate a school like that.”
Ptacek says continued meetings and conversation with Morgan County Health Department Administrator Dale Bainter and his team during the week along with two changes made to the guidelines in the last few days, means school buildings won’t be nearly empty of staff and students during the first few days of the first week.
He says one of those changes allows for anyone who has a COVID like symptom to only cause household close contacts to be quarantined. In the first document, anyone within six feet of someone with a COVID like symptom had to be quarantined. Ptacek says under the first rule, there is no way a school can operate and not have nearly empty class rooms.
He says the second change stated that the guidelines were a general guidance document and local school districts need to work with their local health departments to come to the decision that is best for their community.
“Our local health department met with us again this morning and we came to a conclusion that we are predominately following the IDPH guidelines which predominately mirror the CDC guidelines. But when it comes to the symptoms, we are going to be following the CDC guidelines which require an alternative condition instead of an alternative diagnosis, which allows our nurses to talk with you, analyze what it is and make a determination that no it’s not COVID.
It’s the exact same way as when you go into the doctor’s office there is an original triage where a nurse asks you some symptoms, asks you everything and can say you can go on through. So this is going to allow many more of our staff to stay in school teaching our kids.”
Ptacek says of course the district is very concerned about the health and safety of the students first and foremost. But according to the IDPH guidance that came out late Monday, there was no realistic way the district could have enough teachers in schools to teach kids.
Ptacek says with the adjusted guidelines, District 117 will go forward with the modified plan to return to in-person learning beginning Monday after the board voted unanimously to approve the modified plan after adopting the new guidelines into the plan.
Ptacek says the district is currently working to bring three more people on staff to fill nursing positions to ensure there is enough qualified nursing on hand to make medical determinations between a COVID symptom and what could be something as minor as hay fever or general allergies.
Ptacek also told the board and those present both in the JMS auditorium and attending online, that as a whole, the district plan is still a fluid document that will have to adapt as health officials react to the changing pandemic.
Ptacek says the plan will adapt on a school by school and class by class basis in determining if and when remote learning will be put into effect.
He says a classroom or a single school building may be forced to go to remote learning in the event of an outbreak, but that does not mean the entire district will have to go remote if one student, teacher or classroom has to quarantine because of a positive test, and he also sympathizes with other districts and members of District 117 as these difficult decisions are made.
“It’s not just one and done. And I understand other school districts- it’s tough to make these decisions the other way. It’s amazingly challenging, and I’m not going to say on us, but on our teachers right now to be making that decision the other way.
But what I am getting from the staff predominately is they understand the importance of this for the kids and they care about the kids and the community, and so if you see a teacher, thank them. Honestly.”
Ptacek says over the course of the planning for the new school year, the overwhelming majority of staff, especially teachers have felt strongly that students at least should get started in school to meet their teachers, peers and understand the expectations for the new year, before they should be forced to go to remote learning.
He says 28% of students in the district are starting the year remote learning. Ptacek also announced three teachers at Eisenhower Elementary are currently out until September 2nd due to COVID-19 restrictions. He says parents, teachers and staff of Eisenhower have been notified and are on a site specific plan to begin the school year.