The Homewood School District 153 board on Monday unanimously approved the plan for returning to in-person classes following a year of remote and hybrid schooling. Classes will resume on Aug. 18.
The COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted schooling in 2020-21 continues, and the situation has changed in recent months, with vaccines offering protection that wasn't available most of last year, and a new virus variant that is causing safety concerns.
The Road Back to School Plan was last revised Aug. 5 with the latest guidance from the state, according to Superintendent Scott McAlister.
The Illinois State Board of Education has mandated that all students and staff return to in-person learning with some narrow exceptions. Remote learning options will be available only "to students who are not currently eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and are under a quarantine order by a local public health department or the Illinois Department of Public Health."
But the rapid spread of the Delta variant, which is considered far more contagious than the original version of the virus, prompted Gov. J.B. Pritzker to issue a new mask mandate on Aug. 4, requiring everyone in schools to wear face coverings, regardless of vaccination status.
The main COVID-19 mitigation features of the District 153 plan include:
- Promoting vaccination
- Mandated mask wearing for all
- Physical distancing be observed as much as possible
- Screening and diagnostic testing
- Handwashing and respiratory etiquette
- Staying home when sick and getting tested
- Contact tracing in combination with isolation of those suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases and quarantine of close contacts
- Cleaning and disinfecting
McAlister noted that the plan, which is available on the district's website, includes an extensive frequently-asked-questions section.
"We want to be able to answer those questions so that all of our families when they send their kids to us next week, they know they are doing so in a safe manner," he said.
Board President Shelly Marks said the plan puts safety first.
"The plan is designed to do everything we can to keep our students healthy and safe ... so they can continue to come to school to learn," she said.
Whether the steps will be enough to keep children and teachers safe in the face of the Delta variant surge remains a matter of some debate, however.
"We've received feedback from families on both side of the issue," McAlister said. "I think a strong majority of the emails I've received and our administrators have received have been supportive of what we're doing."
Marks thanked the community for its courtesy in addressing a difficult issue. She noted that other communities have experienced more contentious debates over school safety.
"Every time you turn on the news you read about a different community and school board," she said. "Here in Homewood, the passion comes across with respect. We really appreciate that our community trusts us and knows that we are making these decisions with our children in mind. Thanks to everyone who has reached out. Thanks to everyone who has been respectful."