Draft plan shows four numbers being used by McHenry County schools to decide whether to reopen – or return to remote learning

A draft version of the McHenry County Department of Health’s new metrics designed to help school districts decide when they should move to hybrid or in-person learning shows that the county as a whole has reached the recommended thresholds for a hybrid educational model.

The draft plan was released as part of a planned presentation for Prairie Grove School District 46 board meeting set for Tuesday evening.

McHenry County health department officials are in the final stages of determining these metrics and should be able to release them publicly Wednesday, spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli said. The new framework offers guideposts schools can use to decide when to move forward in bringing kids back into the building – or returning to a remote model.

“When these metrics do come out, we want [school officials] to be able to use it as a tool to help them and guide them in making decisions on what’s best for their schools,” Salvatelli said Monday.

The metrics are likely to be used in varying ways across districts, as every community has unique needs and challenges, Marengo Union Elementary School District 165 Superintendent Lea Damisch said in an interview Monday. Her district never adopted remote learning and has instead been one of only three public school districts in McHenry County to offer in-person options.

“I think it gives each district a place to start the conversation with their community and perhaps some nice checkboxes by which both the school district and the community at large can have confidence that we’re bringing kids back to school in a safe manner or, in our case, we’re keeping students in school in a safe manner,” Damisch said.

Salvatelli agreed that no two districts are alike, adding that the metrics aren’t “necessarily” meant to be a “one-size-fits-all.”

The framework looks at four main metrics: positivity rate, incidence rate, hospital admissions tied to COVID-19 and the weekly count of new cases, according to documents released with the District 46 agenda packet.

Salvatelli declined to clarify whether the metrics would be calculated at the county level or at a more local level. While the health department has reported total cases by ZIP code, it has not reported that level of information for any of the four main metrics outlined in the framework.

Districts are advised to wait for a period of 14 days after they have met each of the four metrics before advancing on to the next learning model so they can try to avoid having to move backward and to move back to a previous learning model if they meet two or more of the metric thresholds for the previous phase, according to the documents.

If a district meets one of the thresholds indicating a greater risk of community spread, the health department will provide suggestions on increased mitigation efforts they can take within whatever learning model they have chosen, according to the documents.

The framework lays out ranges for each metric, recommending when districts should consider fully remote, hybrid or completely in-person options.

A COVID-19 positivity rate – the average percentage of COVID-19 tests that return positive results over a period of seven days – that is higher than 8% may mean a school district should remain in or return to virtual learning, according to the presentation.

Once the positivity rate drops below 8%, school districts might consider transitioning to a hybrid model and if the positivity rate drops below 5%, an in-person learning approach could be feasible.

The incidence rate is calculated when the number of new confirmed cases for each day is divided by the total population of McHenry County and then multiplied by 100,000, according to the presentation. This will then show the rate of confirmed cases per 100,000 people.

If the incidence rate is higher than 14 cases per 100,000 people per day, a district should consider virtual learning, according to the presentation. Once that number drops below 14, hybrid learning could be advisable, and once it drops below 7, in-person learning may be possible.

It is recommended that the number of local hospital admissions related to COVID-19 be stable or decreasing when a school transitions forward to hybrid learning or in-person learning. If hospital admissions are increasing, that is one metric that can be used to encourage districts to move back to a hybrid or virtual model.

The weekly count of COVID-19 cases works the same way as the hospital admission rate, according to the presentation. If the number of new confirmed cases is increasing week over week, that is one sign that districts should consider stricter safety mitigations.

The new framework is meant to provide structure to school districts in making these decisions, Salvatelli said. Adhering to the specific metrics is not mandated by any kind of ordinance.

It’s about “making sure that we have this open rapport with [school officials], making sure that they understand and making sure that we understand their needs and being able to come together collectively to get kids back to school as safely as possible,” Salvatelli said.

For District 165, which returned for in-person learning right away, Damisch said the metrics will be helpful. She said organization and structure have been key to their success so far.

District 165 has reported two cases of COVID-19 since the start of the school year out of more than 1,000 students. All confirmed cases are reported on the “COVID Count” page of the district’s website, Damisch said.

The second case reported Monday was identified as a student of Locust Elementary School, according to a letter emailed out to parents Monday afternoon.

With these two cases – the first of which was reported last week – the district has had to quarantine a handful of kids and seems to have avoided an outbreak so far, Damisch said.

“You’re going to have cases, but you just have to know how to make sure that you’re crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s,” she said. “That’s the important thing and that’s what we’re going to continue to do in collaboration with [the health department].”

For her district, small class sizes, strong social distancing protocols and limitations on the movement of students between classrooms have made the contact tracing process easier than it is for larger districts or districts with high schools, Damisch said.

District 165 learned early on that their main area for potential spread of the virus would be on school buses where kids are not able to stay 6 feet apart. For this reason, students have assigned seating while on the bus and attendance is taken before and after each stop, she said.

This system allowed the district to be very targeted in which students were required to quarantine and those students were able to continue their learning virtually, she said.

When asked if she had any advice for other districts that might be considering making the move to in-person learning, Damisch said each district should take the time to ensure they are fully prepared to take the next step.

“School districts cannot just, every 14 days, yo-yo or ping-pong back to a different model,” she said. “You need to have your community feel confident that you’re making good decisions in collaboration with the county.”

In its presentation on the new metrics from the health department, District 46 announced it will bring students in pre-kindergarten through second grade back for a hybrid learning model beginning Oct. 13. Third- through fifth-grade students will come back starting Oct. 26, and sixth through eighth grade will follow Nov. 10.

The health department has been working with county superintendents for months to develop the new metrics, Salvatelli said.

“We’re trying to work with them to see this through,” she said. “This is us working together and coming out as … a united front through this because we do understand that this is a really big concern for a lot of people in this county.”

The finalized metrics will be published Wednesday on the health department’s COVID-19 page for schools, Salvatelli said. At that point, districts can use them in conjunction with guidelines from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education, she said.

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