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How Many Cases Before Schools Move Online? Some Teachers Still Have In-Person Safety Concerns

Peter Medlin
In 2019, before COVID-19, kindergarteners work in their MakerSpace lab at the STEAM Academy at Haskell Elementary in Rockford.

More than 40 schools in Winnebago County have reported positive COVID-19 cases. Close to half of those are Rockford Public Schools.

Dr. Sandra Martell is the director of the Winnebago County Health Department. She recently stressed that despite cases appearing in schools, the department doesn’t believe students and staff are transmitting the virus while at school. 

But, she said, even though most people in schools are adhering to guidelines, her staff has seen some “gaps” during contact tracing.

“So, you know, ‘We had lunch and most of us remove our face coverings during a lunch period so that we can eat,’ and then they realize they might have been sitting closer than six feet to someone,” said Martell.

But Martell pointed to after-hours activities like sports teams, church groups or even slumber parties as source points of infection. 

So, is having interaction inevitable in a school environment, despite COVID-19 precautions? Brad Sweet said, right now, yes. He’s the president of the Harlem Federation of Teachers. 

“Our lives are not just inside of those buildings. So, we acknowledge that, of course,” he said. “But we also are aware that there are cases that happened because of our employment there.”

His and several other unions, including Rockford, called on the Winnebago County Health Department to step up safety efforts.

The Harlem union also released a statement calling the health department “woefully underprepared to handle the scope of infection” caused by reopening schools.

According to the health department, 36 students and 33 staff members in the county went to school after contracting COVID-19. That’s led to 438 of their “close contacts” having to quarantine as a precaution. 

The department said it reaches out to close contacts within 24 hours of a positive case.

But Sweet said the health department isn’t informing people who have had contact with positive cases to quarantine quickly enough to stop the spread. 

“From our members, we have heard it seems like they know they've been in contact with someone who tested positive inside a school setting and they're waiting to hear from the Winnebago County Health Department,” he said.

The union released a statement asking for specific policies on how to handle potential exposures, so teachers and students don’t come into the classroom infected.

Sweet said they need more comprehensive contact tracing. Dr. Martell said the Winnebago County Health Department has committed to hire 51 tracers but doesn’t have all of them staffed and trained yet. 

She said the department has dedicated its newest tracing teams to work with schools. Some districts, like Rockford, have internal tracing systems too, but it’s up to health departments to issue isolations or quarantines. 

And when they issue those quarantines, who qualifies as a “close contact?” And how is it determined? 

Dr. Martell said during student case investigations her staff talk to the kids and their parents. They ask about their day, where they hang out after school and even who they sit next to on the bus.

“Then we look to see who is sitting in front of that child, behind that child, to the side of that child. And we consider those to be the close contacts,” said Martell. “We look at the seating chart in a classroom, if my teachers at the front of the classroom and I sit in the back row, they're not within my six feet, but the two students sitting on the side of me in front of me would be considered in close contact.” 

Siblings of close contacts may be quarantined as well. If a student tests positive, the whole class doesn’t necessarily have to quarantine for two weeks. There are schools in the area where that has happened. 

Two classes are quarantining in the South Beloit School District. And the high school moved online in an “adaptive pause” after several cases appeared in a short span. 

Adaptive pauses don’t mean courses stop; they just move online.

Sweet said the Harlem Federation of Teachers and other unions have asked the health department for a “clear threshold” of when exactly an adaptive pause would be necessary.

“What is the target? Do we have one firmly stated about ‘This much infection inside of our schools, or this many cases inside of a school will put us into an adaptive pause for that school?’” he said. “We don't know that. No one knows that.”

Dr. Martell said there isn’t a total school case count or positivity rate that would result in an adaptive pause. 

“Yes, we are concerned about an 8% positivity rate and a 7.5% positivity rate in the region. But we also look at the data within the school environment itself,” she said.

That includes whether students in a classroom are transmitting to each other or if they have trouble identifying sources. 

Sweet said that if they had more access to testing, like some universities, it would show higher positivity rates.

“Parents need to know that their school is a safe place to send their kids and right now, we don't think any of us can give them that assurance,” he said.

And when will they be able to? No one seems to know that either.