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Childhood COVID cases fall for second week in Illinois

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With the number of Illinois children testing positive for COVID-19 declining for a second week in a row, some experts said Friday that student quarantines, testing and masking, while frustrating for some parents, are the only way to ensure schools remain open this fall.

The Illinois Department of Public Health reported Friday that for the week ending Sept. 18, 4,681 children ages 5-17 tested positive for COVID-19, a roughly 23% decrease from Sept. 11, when 6,082 children tested positive for the virus, marking the second week in a row cases have dropped.

While the number of Illinois schools reporting outbreaks rose from last week, climbing to 257 from 206, the increase is due in part to the list being cumulative, and some schools remaining on the list, even after the outbreak is contained.

But while the recent dip in the number of children testing positive for the virus is good news for parents and educators, some parents expressed frustration with the quarantine process for students with a possible exposure.

“The goal should be keeping kids in school, not out of school,” said Barrington resident David Robbins, whose 16-year-old son was recently required to quarantine.

Robbins said his son was not exposed at school but rather drove home another student on a Saturday who ended up testing positive on a rapid test. A PCR test later showed that student was negative for the virus, but the Lake County Health Department still required Robbins’ son to quarantine for 10 days, he said.

“He missed two of his soccer games, and six and half days of instruction, so now he’s behind,” Robbins said, adding: “People are getting frustrated, especially when we’ve all been following the rules, which has been test, test, test.”

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Lake County Health Department spokeswoman Emily Young said while officials are prohibited from commenting on individual cases, students can still be asked to quarantine even if an exposure takes place outside school.

“Quarantine is designed to protect students and staff at schools,” Young said. “We work really closely with the schools, and are following the Illinois State Board of Education’s updated guidance.”

Modified quarantine options, including test-to-stay, are only available for students who are fully vaccinated, Young added.

Officials with the Kane County Health Department said they are facing a large “undue burden” to keep up with contact tracing after the county let go several tracers during the slower summer months.

The health department is also trying to keep up with the demand from parents asking for help to determine when they can send their children back to school, slowing down the process, said Uche Onwuta, the county health department’s director of health protection.

For students, many under the age of 12 who cannot receive a vaccine, cases are still rising, Onwuta said. The recent surges stem from 15 current COVID-19 outbreaks within local schools, Onwuta said.

“This is quite a burden on our resources in Kane County managing the cases and the contact tracing,” Onwuta said.

Onwuta said the county has also struggled with meeting the standards for contact tracing to limit the spread of the virus. Standards say 95% of close contacts should be notified and quarantined within 24 hours of exposure. Instead, county statistics show 30% of close contacts were notified as of Aug. 25, and 16% as of Aug. 31.

The 5,300 students enrolled at Kankakee School District 111 pivoted to remote learning Monday and Tuesday of this week to allow custodians to complete a deep cleaning of the district’s 10 school buildings, and the entire freshmen class remains in quarantine, Superintendent Genevra Walters said.

Officials at the Kankakee County Health Department were not immediately available for comment.

While the health department has yet to report a school outbreak to IDPH this fall, Walters said she suspects the department is doing its best, but is overwhelmed and behind in its contact tracing investigations.

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“What is helping our school district is we have our own health clinic that is doing the majority of our testing, but we’re still trying to figure out when students can come out of quarantine,” Walters said.

“Our schools are not designed for social distancing, and that’s a challenge for most large districts,” she said.

Despite the challenges posed by student quarantines, some experts say when combined with vaccines and testing, the measures can increase the odds of schools remaining open as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread.

“It is certainly frustrating and disruptive to children’s education and their families when students have to quarantine. However, quarantining is one of the non-pharmacologic interventions that we can use to stop the spread of any infectious disease,” said Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“Quarantines are difficult to manage but without them, there is the risk that disease will continue to race through a classroom and school and the length of time that it will then take to recover and stop the chain will be longer,” Carnethon said.


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