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More Illinois districts are reopening school buildings, prompting union to track COVID-19 cases

An empty classroom with desks spaced out six feet apart.
New numbers show that nearly 60% of Illinois school children now have the option of blended learning or a full-time return to school buildings.
Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago

More Illinois students this week have the option of returning to school buildings than in previous weeks, spurring the state’s largest teachers union to launch an online COVID-19 case tracker.

New numbers show that 1.17 million Illinois school children have the option of blended learning or a full-time return to school buildings, compared to 800,000 attending school fully remote, according to the state school board’s COVID-19 database, last updated Tuesday. That shift in the numbers, and rising concern among teachers as districts reopen buildings, has prompted the Illinois Federation of Teachers to build its own case tracker and to renew its call for a state positivity threshold that would help determine the timing of reopening.

Dan Montgomery, IFT president, said without the positivity rate, “we see this real jumble of school districts doing all sorts of things like full-time in-person, full-time remote, hybrid.“

The union’s efforts illustrate the complexities of finding, and tracking, COVID-19 cases at the school level. The COVID-19 tracker created by IFT gathers data by crowdsourcing reports from teachers, staff members and families. The site includes a mapping tool that shows district level information and school-related outbreaks confirmed by the Illinois Department of Public Health dashboard.

The difference between the state’s dashboard and the site created by IFT is the ability to locate exactly where cases are.

Montgomery hopes that the tracker will provide transparency to families, educators and community members on where positive cases are and how many people have tested positive at a school.

The Chicago Teachers Union has created a similar COVID-19 case tracker after pushing the city to set a positivity threshold that would determine school openings and closings. District leaders and public health officials have not done so, saying they are looking most closely at a metric known as the “doubling rate,” or the number of days it takes new cases to double. Currently, Chicago’s doubling rate is 97 days, well beyond the district’s threshold of 18.

In New York, the state has reversed a policy that would close the city’s school buildings if the coronavirus positivity rate hit a 9% threshold. Mayor Bill de Blasio briefly closed schools in the fall when the city’s positivity rate reached 3% but has now reopened preschool programs, elementary schools, and schools serving students with special needs.

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