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Metro East Schools Will Start 2021 Remotely To Stave Off Holiday COVID Surge

Collinsville School District 10 music teacher Jennifer Bhooshan instructs students at Webster Elementary. Bhooshan has become creative in the way she teaches music under COVID-19 restrictions that ban students from sharing instruments.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Collinsville School District 10 music teacher Jennifer Bhooshan instructs students at Webster Elementary in October. Bhooshan had to come up with creative ways to teach music under COVID-19 restrictions that ban students from sharing instruments.

Many Metro East students won’t be jumping into in-person learning on their first day back from their winter breaks.

Local districts are starting with remote learning plans, with a gradual transition to hybrid or in-person learning plans by Jan. 19 in order to build in quarantine time for students and faculty who traveled or attended large gatherings over the holidays.

Despite pleas from local, state and federal health officials to stay home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s expected that many traveled over the holidays. Whether they end up testing positive or not, it’s likely that some students and staff will have to quarantine after potential exposures from family gatherings or vacations, county health officials and school administrators say.

With districts already facing staff and substitute teacher shortages due to required isolation periods, the hope is that a delayed start to any in-person learning will allow for quarantines to be completed beforehand.

“Waiting two weeks after the winter break will allow any surge in cases to pass prior to the return to in-person instruction,” Edwardsville Community Unit School District 7 Superintendent Jason Henderson said in a letter to parents. “Our area has seen a surge in positive cases after both Halloween and Thanksgiving, and it is extremely likely that the same will occur after the winter break as well.”

Many other local districts, including Belleville Township High School 201, O’Fallon Township High School 203 and Granite City Unit School District 9 are also planning to start hybrid or in-person learning on Jan. 19. Collinsville Unit School District 10 is set to start Jan. 12.

Flight departures from the St. Louis metropolitan area are well below normal for the holidays, but thousands are still flying.

More than 56,000 people departed from St. Louis Lambert International Airport the week of Christmas this year, based on the number of travelers who went through a TSA checks. That figure does not include arrivals or those who got on a connecting flight.

According to Roger Lotz, the airport’s public information manager, that’s about half of what it was last year, but more than the week of Thanksgiving. He said Thanksgiving typically is the larger travel holiday, but this year the airport had just under 50,000 departures that week.

Surges of positive COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving and Christmas were expected, due to travel and gatherings. While it won’t be clear whether Christmas caused a surge for another week, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike previously said that Illinois avoided a “significant surge” following Thanksgiving.

Even for those who drove in their own cars or didn’t travel at all, hosting friends and family in small gatherings can still pose a risk of infection, Ngozi said.

As of Dec. 25, 11 schools in Illinois were reported by the Illinois Department of Public Health as having had an outbreak in the last 30 days. None were south of Jersey County. An outbreak is defined as five or more linked cases and there are more than 4,000 schools in Illinois.

In St. Clair and Madison Counties, 57 schools were reported as having at least one potential exposure between Nov. 25 and Dec. 25. A potential exposure means someone with a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19 listed the school as a place visited during contact tracing. It does not mean they caught the virus at the school, and there are likely cases of asymptomatic people being in schools, or those who were in a school but either didn’t complete contact tracing or did not include the school on their list.

East St. Louis School District 189 has remained remote the entire fall semester, but most other districts have switched between hybrid and remote, pending local cases and hospital capacities. Nearly all of St. Clair County started the year with remote learning, and after starting hybrid learning, many local districts had to return to remote learning at least temporarily later in the year.

Megan Valley is a reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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