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“This is a major threat,” Superintendent Michael Simek said of the coronavirus outbreak that has infected almost 120,000 people worldwide and more than a dozen in the state of Illinois, according to Illinois Department of Public Health data as of March 10.
“This is not an idle exercise,” Mr Simek said of District 115’s response. “I fully expect that the number of cases is going to expand and that this has the potential, at least, to be significantly disruptive” to school operations.
That response has thus far involved investigative discussions at the administrative level, redoubled sanitation efforts, and efforts to communicate details to parents. Communication has involved multiple emails and the creation of a page on the Lake Forest Schools website centered on the disease.
Mr Simek said the administration set up “cabinet-level” meetings involving the superintendent, head of communications, chief financial officer, chief technology officer, and head of human resources. The group has since been extended to include kindergarten, elementary, and middle school; “it makes sense to do this K-12 because a lot of the issues are common,” Mr Simek explained.
The objective of the cabinet is essentially “trying to make sure that we have more people at the table in order to share the load of investigating and ultimately implementing whatever it is that we decide to do,” he continued.
The district is also participating in a “multi-district task force” aimed at ensuring a unified response. Most local decisions to date have centered on partnering with parents and increasing sanitization efforts on campus.
“The most important partnership is the one we have with you,” an email sent to all district parents read. “We need your help to prevent the spread of illness in our schools, not just coronavirus, but any kind of viral illness.”
The Nurse’s Office has taken the lead in promoting student health, but in practice this just involves the dispensing of hygiene advice to teachers and students — and advising the ill to avoid school.
“If you’re sick, please stay home,” said assistant nurse Jane Kudla. “We know that a lot of students may want to push through for a test, but because of the unknowns it is more imperative that you not get others sick.”
Cleaning crews have increased the number of times washing doorknobs, and gym teachers are releasing their students a few minutes earlier to give them time to wash their hands; teachers have been told to remind their students to wash their hands and sneeze or cough into the elbow should tissues prove unavailable.
This has met with some resistance as a rather redundant piece of advice; some teachers said they do not tell their students to wash their hands to begin with and others said the advice was obvious.
“As teachers of high school students,” said one English teacher who asked to remain anonymous, “these are very common hygiene things that we don’t normally tell students because we expect them to know to do, but now that this is going around we’re telling everyone.”
Another teacher criticized the school’s base hygiene level; “there are not enough supplies [ie soap, paper towels] in the bathrooms,” they said.
The school is also considering a “deep clean,” a one-day closure that would be an entirely local decision made by the superintendent.
“Schools close on a regular basis for any number of things,” Mr Simek said, naming flu outbreaks as a prominent example. “We are preparing for the possibility that the Coronavirus could cause a closing,” he wrote in an email.
The school has already effectively cancelled the Spring Music Tour due to the spread of cases in Central Europe, the less modern medical scene in Prague, and the Czech Republic’s limitation on cultural sites and gatherings.
“I do not foresee any possibility of continuing the trip this spring,” Mr Simek wrote to parents and students involved with the trip in an email.
There is also the option of last resort — a longer closing. This is “unlikely to be a local decision,” Mr Simek emphasized, saying that it would most likely involve the Lake County government and potentially the IDPH and CDC.
Such a long-term closure would necessitate remote learning; the school is considering this option, but it is not yet fully implemented.
“Do we have the capacity to do e-learning for all students? Yes,” Mr Simek said. “Are we ready to do that? No.”
Many online tools — Schoology included — are under consideration, but the particulars have not been worked out yet; “we are not at that point at this time,” Mr Simek wrote.
The overall mood in the administration remains upbeat, if exceptionally hectic.
“When a challenge arises, good people rise to the occasion,” Mr Simek wrote. “That’s what we are seeing now.”
This story was originally published on The Forest Scout on March 11, 2020.