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Some East St. Louis Parents Demand Schools Provide Remote Learning Due To COVID Cases

 Parents and family members of students in East St. Louis School District 189 march to the administration offices of the district on Sept. 15. The group wants options for remote student learning and details about infection rates in schools and classrooms to better protect family and their children.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Parents and family members of students in East St. Louis School District 189 march to the administration offices of the district on Sept. 15. The group wants options for remote student learning and details about infection rates in schools and classrooms to better protect family and their children.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

About a week after school started at East St. Louis School District 189, Larita Rice-Barnes’ daughter received the first of three letters from her school about students testing positive for COVID-19.

The letters said her child, a high school senior, wasn’t in close contact with those students, but Rice-Barnes found the messaging confusing, considering the people who tested positive were either in the same classroom or bus as her daughter.

The circumstances led Rice-Barnes to keep her daughter at home after receiving the letters. She’s concerned about COVID safety. “We don’t want to mess up her school year, but we don’t feel safe with sending her to the school either,” Rice-Barnes said.

On Wednesday morning, Rice-Barnes, director of the Metro-East Organizing Coalition, led nearly 20 parents and guardians of district students in a protest outside of the administration’s building. They demanded that the district be transparent in reporting COVID-19 cases and better handle equipment and staffing shortages brought on by the pandemic. And they called on the district to allow a remote learning option for families.

“One of the reasons that we’re out here is that since school has started, there have been so many outbreaks of COVID in the school,” Rice-Barnes said during the protest. “We have been reaching out to the school district asking for answers, asking for options for our children. There is no school board, no school district without our kids and our families. We are the collateral. There is no school district without parents and without children. We do not feel safe.”

East Side Health District, which serves the East St. Louis area, confirmed on Wednesday that although some individual classrooms in the district were experiencing outbreaks, that does not mean that schools are labeled as such. Only those classrooms are. The health district considers an outbreak as two or more positive cases within one setting, such as a classroom.

The school district recently published its COVID-19 dashboard on its website, which lists 53 students (1.1% of enrolled students) as testing positive for COVID-19. The data is cumulative for a two-week period from Aug. 30 to Sept. 13.

As of Wednesday, seven of 10 schools in the district have multiple COVID-19 student cases. They are: James Avant Elementary School, seven; East St. Louis Senior High School, 31; Dr. Katie Harper-Wright Elementary School, eight; Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary School, two; Mason-Clark Middle School, eight; Vivian Adams Early Childhood Learning Center, two and Wyvetter Younge School of Excellence, six.

That’s too many for some parents in the district, which is why they’re calling on the district to implement a remote learning option for families.

“Our kids are not safe,” Rice-Barnes said. “Our families are not safe. We do not feel safe because our loved ones who are at home are at risk. We need options and answers. We need remote learning.”

Darlean Ware, who was at Wednesday’s protest, has a nine-year-old grandson who attends James Avant Elementary School. He returned to school on Wednesday after his mom decided to keep him away due to the current cases.

Ware said her grandson has severe asthma and currently lives in a home with her, his mom and great-grandmother.

“Last year, we helped him,” Ware said. “He was an A student. He didn’t miss a day, so why can’t I have the option for this year?

COVID-19 is worse for the babies. I have a 95-year-old mother at home. I’m 62. I have health problems also. (My grandson) definitely has them. Ask the parent, ask the grandparents. See what they have to say. They’re not saying that we want all the kids taken out of school. We want options.”

In May, the Illinois State Board of Education approved a resolution requiring in-person student attendance for the fall semester. Schools are only required to offer remote learning for students who are both ineligible for the vaccine and are under a quarantine order. The Illinois School Code has other limited provisions, such as for home or hospital-bound students, that would require schools to provide additional learning formats. Earlier this month, the state board approved an updated resolution that removes language about vaccine eligibility and requires remote instruction during adaptive pauses.

However, the resolution leaves the responsibility of remote options for individual students during the pandemic up to the school districts.

“CDC research shows that schools are safe when they have mitigations, such as universal indoor masking, in place,” Jackie Matthews, the state school board’s communications director, said in a statement, when asked about additional guidance for school districts offering a remote option.

“In addition, Illinois requires all school personnel to be vaccinated or be tested regularly – an important additional step toward ensuring the health and safety of everyone in the school community. School districts are required to provide fully in-person instruction with the exception of a few extremely limited circumstances. Whether the school district chooses to expand remote learning to additional individual students using the flexibility permitted in state law is entirely up to the school district’s discretion.”

 Parents and family members of students in East St. Louis School District 189 march outside the administration offices of the district on Sept. 15.
Derik Holtmann
Parents and family members of students in East St. Louis School District 189 march outside the administration offices of the district on Sept. 15.

‘It’s a hotbed here in my area’

District 189 will follow the lead of its local health department, East Side Health District, when determining to implement a remote learning option. Sydney Stigge-Kaufman, the school’s district’s communications director, said that decision would be informed by local health officials.

“We’d get the guidance from our local health department and IDPH if our positive case numbers were too high, for example,” Stigge-Kaufman said. “They would guide us to say you should go on a pause for two weeks or whatever time period, but no one has given us that guidance.”

Elizabeth Patton-Whiteside, director of the East Side Health District, said she’s aware of parents’ concerns and plans to adhere to the state board of education’s guidance on in-person learning.

She also is aware of the rising cases within East Side Health District’s jurisdiction. East Side Health District serves the following townships: East St. Louis, Centreville, Canteen, and Stites - all predominately-Black and brown communities.

“We are following all state and IDPH guidelines,” Patton-Whiteside said. “Now, these may not be to their liking, but this is how we’re mandated to do things. My one response to them is, because our area is a hotbed for COVID-19, have people in your families gotten vaccinated?”

So far in September, East Side Health District has reported 211 COVID-19 cases in its jurisdiction, which Patton-Whiteside says is “very high”. For example, in June the district reported 127 cases for the month. That number increased to 477 in July and 525 in August.

“It’s a hotbed in here in my area and all of my ZIP codes, and my preaching out to them, to the parents and everyone, is if the parent, the mother, the daddy, the uncle, the aunt, the cousin and their friend were to get vaccinated, our COVID-19 cases would go down, but they’re not getting vaccinated,” Patton-Whiteside said. “There’s still a lot of vaccine hesitancy in our community. We’re a vaccine clinic Monday through Friday and we have events on the weekends, but people are not coming out.”

As of Wednesday, ZIP codes representing areas served by East Side Health District rank in the top five for lowest vaccination rates in the metro-east. Currently, the health district has no additional plans for vaccine outreach.

“We’re doing everything that we can,” Patton-Whiteside said.

Still, parents and guardians of District 189 want more action. Marshata Caradine, who attended Wednesday’s protest, said she doesn’t think parents’ concerns are being taken seriously.

“I just lost my husband to COVID, and our daughters, they play volleyball for (East St. Louis Senior) High School, so I’m like ‘You’re not going to be playing now’,” Cardine said. “We’re being treated like our lives are expendable. It’s a lot...We’re so used to people just not caring, so it’s ingrained in us here. When it comes to your children, you learn how powerful your voice is, so it makes you move. Nobody wants nobody ill, but just to act like we don’t matter, our kids don’t matter (is a lot).”

Stigge-Kaufman said the school district is in constant conversations with East Side Health District to ensure the safety of students and staff and admits “there are always challenges that hit the road,” which is why she appreciates the patience of students and staff.

“The pandemic has not been easy on anyone, and we want to do what’s best for our students and that’s in a joint effort with our parents,” Stigge-Kaufman said. “We hear their concerns.”

Larita Rice-Barnes plans to continue organizing protests until parents’ demands are met. She wants to meet with stakeholders in the community to seek a solution.

“We are waiting on a response for a meeting with the group of parents and guardians that were out here, and there were others that couldn’t come,” Rice-Barnes said. “Like I said, one of our parents’ son tested positive as of two days ago, so we want a meeting. We’re requesting that we get answers to our demands.”

East Side Health District will host a free COVID-19 vaccination clinic at East St. Louis Senior High School on Saturday, September 18 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. that will be open to the public. Youth ages 12-17 must have parental consent. Required school immunizations will also be offered.

Belleville News-Democrat Education Reporter Megan Valley contributed to this story.

DeAsia Paige is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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