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McHenry County health department works to finalize COVID-19 metrics to help schools evaluate in-person learning options

The McHenry County Department of Health is in the process of establishing countywide metrics that will help school districts determine their plans for the rest of the semester, including whether some form of in-person learning is feasible.

(Read a draft version of the plan here)

The agency is in the final stages of determining these metrics and should be able to release them publicly sometime next week, department spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli said.

“We are working with the school superintendents on this,” she said.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most McHenry County public schools went remote for the first part of the school year. Only three districts, Riley School District 18 in Marengo, Marengo Union Elementary School District 165 and Marengo High School District 154, still gave parents in-person and remote learning options for the year.

Private schools such as Immanuel Lutheran School in Crystal Lake are offering in-person learning. Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock started its year fully in person but recently switched to a hybrid model after two students tested positive for the coronavirus.

Most public school districts in McHenry County initially planned on having students follow a hybrid learning model.

For most hybrid plans, students are split into two groups, each of which is physically in school for part of the week while the other group is remote. They then will switch for the other part of the week.

Many of the area's districts unveiled this model during summer board meetings but switched to a fully remote plan, with many saying they would revisit the decision in September or October. Superintendents cited a rising positivity rate and the number of COVID-19 cases in McHenry and Lake counties, as well as changing, and at times conflicting, information on how to reopen as reasons for this switch.

Having a countywide consensus on meaningful health metrics is a game-changer, Huntley School District 158 Superintendent Scott Rowe said during a board meeting Thursday, at which he announced that early childhood through fifth grade students will have a hybrid schedule starting Oct. 19.

Although conversations with the McHenry County health department have been ongoing, it is only very recently that things have started to take shape to the point where the district feels confident using these metrics as a key part of decision-making, District 158 spokesman Dan Armstrong said.

Area superintendents have been taking part in regular calls with McHenry County health department officials, as well as with people from other county agencies at times, Armstrong said.

“As much as we can, we need to act as a county,” he said.

Along with the local data, guidelines from the Illinois Department of Public Health have been more solidified since the summer, and districts have had some time to weigh them, Armstrong said.

Woodstock School District 200 spokesman Kevin Lyons said the district's administration appreciates the countywide metrics as a tool for the board to choose its next steps going forward.

Like other school districts, District 200 has gone through a couple of different plans on reopening since the spring, and this planning continues to happen.

Woodstock decided to keep remote learning until Oct. 16, which is the end of its quarter. District 200's next two board meetings are scheduled for Tuesday and Oct. 6.

“School boards are made up of usually pretty intelligent people from the community and a lot of professionals,” Lyons said. “But what they're not is epidemiologists. So they need that kind of guidance to make decisions.”

McHenry High School District 156 officials plan to use the finalized metrics as one factor in the development of a timeline for returning students to school buildings in a hybrid learning format, Superintendent Ryan McTague said in a statement.

Even with the countywide metrics, individual districts' plans will vary, as each district has its own unique circumstances with enrollment, class sizes, class needs and building layouts, Armstrong said.

Still, he said, the metrics are reassuring, as black-and-white data previously has been hard to come by.

“Everything has been so unknown, understandably, at every level,” Armstrong said. ”So this is very important to get this level of concrete, statistical information in place to guide that decision-making.”

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