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What it's like for students and staff when Omicron outbreaks move classes back online

Before they left for Christmas Break, Jorge Alfaro needed to remind his 3rd-grade class.

“I said, ‘Hey, there might be a chance that we might not come back in person,'“ he said. “I just wanted to let them know. ‘So, if that happens, let's go over our expectations for what's required when we do remote learning.”

The West Chicago Elementary School District wanted all of their students to refresh their memories on remote learning just in case of an extreme weather event…or COVID.

They practiced how to log on to the remote learning platform and where to find assignments.

The possibility of returning remote became reality when more than 120 staff members tested positive after the holidays.

Superintendent Kristina Davis made the call and moved classes online for the first week after break.

“I think the initial reaction and response I heard from parents and from principals," she said, "was just a concern from students about, ‘Is this going to continue? Is it going to be like last year?’”

Alfaro said, although he did field a few calls from panicked parents who were having trouble getting their kid’s Chromebook to work, the quick pivot to remote actually went smoothly.

“When they came in all and [turned on] their microphones, they were ready to go,” said the Pioneer Elementary School teacher.

His students haven’t had a non-pandemic school year since Kindergarten. He said, as a teacher these days, it almost feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. So, seeing his students learn so well moving online on the fly almost drove their teacher to tears.

“We're doing some doing research on weather phenomena,” said Alfaro. “You can tell what they're doing. And I was like, ‘Ah if I wasn't a big tough guy, I cry right now.’ But I didn't. Because they were all there. Because they were doing their thing. I could see them looking things up, reading and typing.”

Alfaro’s Pioneer Elementary School principal is Lissette Jacobson.

She spent the last week trying to make school operations as normal as they could be. She ran around handing out laptop chargers to folks who forgot them before break. She made sure Individualized Education Plan meetings happened remotely for students with special needs and held grade-level meetings with her staff.

Between those IEP meetings and Social-Emotional Learning classes her students take, she feels like they’ve done their best to prioritize the kids’ mental health. But Jacobson said it’s been as difficult to look after their own mental health.

“I'll be honest, I've struggled with finding healthy coping,” she said. “I like to eat lots of bread,” Jacobson adds with a laugh.

This week, West Chicago returned to in-person learning. But, the challenges are still there. Jacobson said teacher shortages persist.

“We do have like some flexibility in terms of staff being able to work remotely if they have to quarantine as well as students being able to log in from in the building,” she said. “And then just having our paraprofessionals or lunch supervisors or other people monitor in the classroom while the teacher teaches from home.”

The Illinois State Board of Education just adopted CDC guidelines in an effort to limit the length of quarantines. Staff and students who test positive for COVID should now isolate for 5 days instead of 10 days -- beginning with when their symptoms started. If they don’t have symptoms, it should start from the day they test positive.

Superintendent Davis said that will help. They’ve also been offering weekly testing for students, but even that isn’t without difficulties.

“Our challenge with that is that I think we're in our third lab,"said Davis. "We've had to make these changes because they've had difficulty staffing too.”

The West Chicago Elementary School District was the only northern Illinois school to move fully remote for the whole week. But, last week, 5,409 schools across the country were disrupted due to COVID. That’s the largest number in any week of this school by far.

And as the Omicron surge continues…schools can’t conjure new staff out of thin air if cases pile up. And every school needs to be ready to go remote again.

Copyright 2022 WNIJ Northern Public Radio. To see more, visit WNIJ Northern Public Radio.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.
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