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Reopening Rockford: Education adjusts to new normal but questions remain about fall

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ROCKFORD (WREX) — Communities are built on education, but the coronavirus changed the way we learn.

Now as we come out of the pandemic, there's no going back. In the fall, we'll continue with a new model for safety.

13 News spoke to local school administrators and presidents for our "Reopening Rockford" series about the future of education.

It happened in the blink of an eye.

"I don't think anybody would've thought that education could switch to online overnight," Eric Fulcomer, the President of Rockford University, says. "No one would have imagined something like that."

It would've involved a process that, experts say, would've taken time, discussion, and a thoughtful review of curriculum.

"Schools had to constantly be pivoting," Sandra Martell, the Winnebago County Public Health Administrator, adds.

"We just really felt like it was tough," Ehren Jarrett, Rockford Public School District 205 Superintendent, says.

That's because schools are more than a place to study.

"In some cases, that's access to meals and healthcare," Jarrett explains.

They foster social, emotional, and physical growth for all ages.

"Also the families that are impacted," Martell points out, like working adults who were forced to go remote when schools closed their doors.

The impact was massive and chaotic.

"There were times we fell short of meeting everyone's needs," Jarrett admits.

But gradually things got better, and 15 months later, here we are, having in-person graduation ceremonies.

"We were able to do in-person commencement and our students, and families, were really appreciative of the opportunity to have a bit of a sense of normalcy," Fulcomer explains.

And as one school year ends, preparations begin for the next.

"We started planning in February for next year," Martell says, explaining the decisions that have to be made require thoughtful discussion and facts.

But questions remain about what exactly next school year will look like, and there's an important reason why.

"Even if you're looking at our Phase Four and Bridge for transition guidance for schools, the first line is that our response is constantly evolving," Martell explains. "We are continuing to learn more and more."

Just last week, the Illinois State Board of Education announced the State Superintendent could require in-person teaching by the end of this academic year.

"We're going to do everything in our power to keep children safe and we really want you back," Jarrett, who is happy about the decision, says.

But that means continuing to mask up.

"The current thinking is that masking will be required, especially from the guidance that we're having on the K-12 from the Illinois State Board of Education," Martell explains.

A spokesperson for Rock Valley College told us it's waiting for further guidance, a familiar refrain.

"We don't know the answer to that question," Jarrett says when asked about masking. "We will follow CDC guidelines."

"Right now, we're still enforcing an indoor mask mandate, but we're going to monitor the federal, state, and local guidelines," Fulcomer says, and adds just recently the school dropped it's outdoor requirement after the CDC's announcement.

But rapid testing is a tool schools will use to keep an eye on the pandemic.

"Now we have the Illinois covidSHIELD project that's coming out," Martell says with a smile.

It's a $225 million effort that uses saliva-based testing to provide results in 12 to 24 hours for middle and high schools, something that Martell says could cut down on the lengthy quarantine stays.

"It's unlikely that we will have the same level of strict protocols," Jarrett explains.

But school administrator say they'll follow guidance from health experts and be prepared for everything going into fall.

"We think that we'll still need to set rooms aside for quarantine and isolation, and the difference between quarantine and isolation is quarantine is when someone was exposed, but doesn't have symptoms [and] isolation is for someone who has symptoms," Fulcomer says.

But he adds, students who have received the vaccine won't have to quarantine if exposed, per CDC policy.

Right now, the vaccine is not required for students or staff come this fall at any school in Rockford, but Fulcomer and Jarrett are encouraging you to get the shot.

"Our staff is highly vaccinated (70 percent) at this point and we believe going into the school year the vast majority of students will have the opportunity to do so as well," Jarrett says.

Martells adds that we could see the vaccine mandated when the FDA fully authorizes it outside of emergency use, but until then, we must learn to co-exist with the virus.

"We're making it incumbent upon the individual to take the right, appropriate action," Martell says, explaining that we're at a stage where we are moving away from community-based mitigations.

A lesson Martell delivers from outside of the classroom, so we can get back in it.

School leaders and health experts are hoping for more information in June when we'll likely reach Phase Five, but they all vow to follow the science to keep students and staff safe.

Richard Bodee

Richard Bodee is a reporter at WREX. He joined the 13 WREX team in June 2019 after graduating from DePaul University with a Master’s degree in broadcast journalism.

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