McHenry County releases finalized plan for when kids may return to in-person school

The McHenry County Department of Health officially released countywide metrics Wednesday designed to give area school districts concrete data and statistics to consider when deciding what learning model to use during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

School districts are being advised to transition first to hybrid learning before going to a fully in-person model.

“While school officials and MCDH have a mutual desire for all students and staff to have a safe return to the classroom, it is important to note that there is currently no risk-free scenario or learning model that eliminates transmission from impacting schools,” the McHenry County health department said in a news release.

Four specific metrics are being used to help guide schools on whether to go to a new learning model. They are the COVID-19 incidence rate, the county’s test positivity rate, whether hospital admissions tied to COVID-19 are increasing, and whether the number of new cases are increasing.

The McHenry County health department recommends that schools remain in a learning model for at least 14 days with all thresholds met before transitioning to the next learning model.

For many districts, a hybrid learning model means students will be split into two groups for in-person learning for part of the day or week and be remote for the rest of the time.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, only three McHenry County districts, Riley School District 18 in Marengo, Marengo Union Elementary School District 165 and Marengo High School District 154, gave parents some sort of in-person options to start the school year.

Some superintendents pointed to changing information and sometimes conflicting guidance from local, state and federal agencies as one reason to keep students in remote learning for the start of the year.

The newly released metrics are meant to provide structure to school districts in making decisions about whether they should move to a more in-person model or move back to a more remote one, department spokesperson Lindsey Salvatelli has said.

Schools are advised to continue remote instruction if the incidence rate exceeds 14 per 100,000 per day, test positivity exceeds 8%, hospitalizations are increasing and the number of new cases is increasing, according to the plan released Wednesday.

Switching to hybrid is recommended when the incidence and positive rates fall below those rates and both hospitalizations and the number of cases are decreasing, according to the plan. Fully in-person instruction can be considered when the incidence rate falls below 7 per 100,000, test positivity drops below 5%, hospitalizations are decreasing and the number of new cases also is decreasing.

The COVID-19 positivity rate is the average percentage of COVID-19 tests that return positive results over a period of seven days. The incidence rate is calculated by dividing the number of new confirmed cases for each day into the total population of McHenry County and then multiplying by 100,000, giving the rate of confirmed cases per 100,000 people.

If the county moves backward on any two metrics, the plan recommends returning to the previous learning model, according to the release.

These metrics also are meant to be used in conjunction with the Transition Joint Guidance document developed by the Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Department of Public Health, according to the release.

Adhering to the specific metrics will not be mandated by any kind of ordinance.

Several school districts, including Woodstock School District 200 and Prairie Grove School District 46, mentioned a draft version of these metrics during meetings where they unveiled a hybrid school reopening plan at meetings this week. Huntley School District 158 Superintendent Scott Rowe, at a meeting last week, called the new metrics a “game-changer.”

In a statement Wednesday, Rowe said the metrics are intended to assist school district leaders as one piece of their decision-making process

“School districts throughout the county vary in enrollment, building features, operational structures, class sizes and other measures that impact their decision-making in response to the ongoing pandemic,” he said. 

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