Board members disagree over what criteria should prompt reopening in D161

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Board members disagree over what criteria should prompt reopening in D161

December 03, 2020 - 20:39
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A discussion about what COVID-19 metrics should be used to determine when Flossmoor School District 161 can reopen for in-person learning was left unresolved after some school board members questioned the criteria options presented by Superintendent Dana Smith.

Smith, during a special meeting of the board of education held Monday, Nov. 30, asked the board to consider using information available from the Illinois State Board of Education and the Cook County Department of Public Health to guide them in choosing what indicators would enable District 161’s reopening to its general student population. 

He said the board needed to answer two major questions: what would get students back to school, and what that program would look like when it happens. He said the goal for the evening was to know what it would take to come back more aggressively when the numbers change.

“We have not reached that point yet,” Smith said. “Right now, all the numbers and indicators are just off the charts.”

Smith asked the board to consider possible indicators of “Moderate Community Transmission” such as county color coding of warning signs of increased COVID-19 risk in the county, county case rates per 100,000, overall county case numbers for two consecutive weeks, weekly county youth case numbers over two consecutive weeks and weekly test positivity. He presented markers in those categories to consider reopening.

“We’re recommending that we follow the indicators in the moderate level,” Smith said.

But Board Members Christina Vlietstra and Cameron Nelson took issue with those numbers and indicators as guides for their decisions. Vlietstra said she has a problem with how positive and “probable” cases are being combined in the numbers. She said she is not sure what constitutes the latter, and it may not be a good enough indication of what District 161 should do.

“That’s kind of confusing our guidance,” she said. “That’s my problem with watching the current numbers. …  An estimation of what might be does not make me feel comfortable to make that decision.”

Kathleen Knawa, a school nurse for the district, explained that an example of a probable case is when someone in a household has a positive COVID-19 case and another person has not necessarily tested positive but is exhibiting symptoms. That latter person would be recorded as probable, she said.

Nelson said weekly cases could be a good indicator for the county as a whole, but the color classifications are decisions not within the district’s control. He did not see how the ratio metrics would be of any value to Flossmoor. He shared a “strong opposition” to increase and percentages as an indicator for the district.

“I do not think much of this is useful to us,” Nelson said. “All we really know is we have more cases than May.”

He argued that, too, could just be a sign that there was an “overreaction” in May. He also said some of these metrics were just “noisy numbers,” asking that if cases dropped all the way to zero and then there was a small surge again, would they close schools based on a percentage.

“None of this has anything to do with schools,” he said. “The risks presented to the community and our teachers are primarily based on age.”

Nelson also questioned the state’s numbers at-large, saying positivity rates do not measure the progress of a community, just how good people have gotten at recognizing they probably have COVID-19, as well as an increase in the prevalence of tests.

“Test positivity rate is a terrible number. I wish people would stop using,” he said. “Positivity rate is not a relevant factor. Nobody should be basing a decision on it.”

Smith called these metrics “the cleanest data the district has to work with” and asked if Nelson was privy to numbers the rest of school officials could instead use to make their decisions. But Nelson said he does not think there is any good data to guide a district such as 161. And he reiterated that the biggest risk the virus poses is to those who are ages 50 and older and/or immunocompromised.

“We still have students who need to be in school,” Nelson said. “Counter-weighing that is the risk to senior citizens.”

Smith said those demographic concerns do not hold up to the experiences of the district, as of late.

“We have several teachers under the age of 50 who are severely ill with COVID currently,” he said, noting some have also had family members hospitalized during the pandemic. “They’re my age or younger. It’s a concern.”

He also said it is hard to know when or how to take a calculated risk if the district does not have any parameters in place for that assessment.

“We can’t hate all of the numbers,” Smith said. “We have to have some we can lean on.

“At some point we have to move from the ‘feel’ to ‘we know.’ Something needs to tell us when to reopen. Otherwise, we’re going to be paralyzed.”

Nelson said the easiest switch would be the availability of a vaccine.

“The virus is spreading regardless of the measures we’re taking,” he said. “I think we should have a bias toward opening school as soon as we can. … The vaccine should trigger our efforts to start to open schools.”

Board Vice President Carolyn Griggs said she was not willing to dismiss all of the numbers outright in favor of a vaccine as the sole answer.

“I’m worried about using just one thing,” she said.

She also asked Nelson if the mere existence of a vaccine would trigger reopening, or if availability and willingness to take it would play a role. Nelson suggested if a vaccine is available to teachers, it should not be a question of willingness.

“I’m not really into ‘willing,’” he said.

But Board Secretary Misha Blackman said teachers have to be a key part of the decision-making process.

“I also see this as a people issue,” she said. “There is no teaching without teachers.”

Board Member Stephen Parades added that as much as it is the board’s job to observe from a bird’s-eye view and guide the district, and numbers remain important to that process, the pandemic is something that ultimately impacts people.

“The pain is real to those who feel it,” he said. “This is also extremely personal.”

He called Smith’s plan “good guidance, generally speaking,” and said there is a need for uniform measures the board can apply to the situation.

“The numbers are the numbers,” he said. “I don’t think we should throw them out. I think they should be used for informing, rather than driving.”

Smith recommended tracking the numbers for a few weeks and revisiting them at a future meeting to see what the trends are. He said administrators can “go back to the drawing board” but at this stage that mostly means adding “vaccine” to the proposed list of indicators and putting asterisks next to others.

The Learning and Instruction Committee is set to meet Monday, and Smith said he planned to follow up with that group on the issue. He said Martin Luther King Jr. Day could serve as a guidepost for the district, but as the numbers stand he is not in favor of reopening even a few weeks after the holiday break.

“I’m not recommending that we come right out of break — period,” Smith said. “If our numbers are like this, I’m not recommending going back.”