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These Changes Will Help Metro East Schools Limit COVID Quarantines

In her sixth-grade classroom at Wyvetter Younge School of Excellence in East St. Louis, teacher Cynthia Roller hands out paper for a classroom assignment.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
In her sixth-grade classroom at Wyvetter Younge School of Excellence in East St. Louis, teacher Cynthia Roller hands out paper for a classroom assignment.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

In the first weeks of school this month, districts are adjusting to a school year that’s very different from last year, let alone any year before it.

By and large, schools were not the COVID superspreader centers last year that many parents, educators and health experts initially feared they might be.

Even with lower cases than some predicted, though, many Metro East school districts faced large numbers of quarantines, especially among adult staff.

For students, quarantines limit the amount of in-person learning they’re able to do. For school staff, it can put more strain on those in the building when substitute numbers are low. Two major developments from this time last year could help: vaccines and testing in schools, both school and health officials say.

“We’re living a real life science experiment,” Madison County Regional Superintendent Robert Werden said. “Even the experts are trying new things all the time to find something that works. This year is unique from any other year we’ve had, because we’re trying to bring everybody back, a full schedule, feed them in our schools, keep masks on — all of these factors that were not around pre-COVID.”

While some area schools have been in session for more than two weeks now, the Illinois Department of Public Health updates on a lag. On Friday, the youth cases data from the first week some schools returned will be published; even without school, youth cases have been climbing steadily in Madison and St. Clair Counties.

Vaccines and increased testing could help if they’re used, but schools are not in the clear yet. Already, Staunton CUSD 6 in Macoupin County has had to take an adaptive pause because of the number of students quarantined in the first two weeks.

Vaccinated staff and students likely won’t have to quarantine

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Thursday that all Illinois education staff, from preschool through higher ed, will have to get their first vaccine by Sept. 5, or face at least weekly COVID testing.

Fully vaccinated people who are in close contact with someone testing positive for COVID-19 should be tested, but don’t have to be quarantined as long as they’re asymptomatic, according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even before the statewide mandate, some districts had high buy-in for the vaccine among its staff.

At Belleville Township High School 201’s voluntary vaccine clinic for staff earlier this year, about 575 of the district’s 840 staff were vaccinated, Superintendent Brian Mentzer said. With some employees becoming eligible earlier for reasons other than their profession, Mentzer said the number of vaccinated staff is higher than that.

“We did have a considerable amount of people vaccinated before then, and I assume some since then,” Mentzer said.

Last year, many school districts faced severe substitute teacher shortages. While there’s been a long-term shortage, COVID increased the need, as any teachers who were a close contact had to quarantine for two weeks. At the same time, fewer people were willing to work as a substitute teacher because of the exposure risk.

“(Staff vaccinations) helped alleviate a bit of the problem,” Werden said. “I would not say that it’s solved the problem.”

The likelihood of a “breakthrough” case — which is when someone who is fully vaccinated against COVID contracts the virus — is relatively low, though it is increasing as the delta virus sweeps through the country. Most breakthrough cases are asymptomatic or experience only mild symptoms, according to USA Today.

Illinois joined Oregon, Washington, New York and New Jersey in requiring the vaccine for staff. Chicago Public Schools had already elected to require staff to get the vaccine, as did St. Louis Public Schools and the Ferguson-Florissant School District, just outside of St. Louis.

Students ages 12 and older are also eligible for the vaccine. Like they did for staff, many school districts in the region hosted optional vaccine clinics for students and families over the spring and summer. There is no state mandate for student COVID vaccinations.

Testing programs could help unvaccinated students stay in class

Under the CDC guidance, schools may offer a “test to stay” option designed to help limit the number of students sent home. If an unvaccinated student is considered a close indoor contact with confirmed positive case, they may be able to avoid quarantine by taking a Rapid Point of Care Antigen test on the first, third, fifth and seventh days after the exposure.

If the student remains asymptomatic and tests negative each time, they can continue to attend classes in person.

Collinsville 10 is one of the largest districts in the Metro East region, and will be offering the antigen test to families.

“Parents can opt-in to have their children antigen-tested,” Collinsville CUSD 10 Superintendent Brad Skertich said. “ … If the results are negative, they would not be excluded from school. They’d be able to remain in school.”

There are other COVID tests available for use in schools, with funding help from the state that started in May and June, depending on the grade level. Werden said most districts in his county were opting to use some sort of testing.

“You’ve got different degrees of using the testing in the schools as well, but that’s part of what’s going to help us limit the number of kids who are quarantined,” he said.

Megan Valley is a reporter and editor with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Megan Valley covers education at the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio. She is also a Report for America corps member.