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Urbana Schools Plan Return To In-Person Learning With COVID-19 Testing On-Site

An image from a new messaging campaign created by the Urbana School District 116 to set expectations for when students and staff return to school buildings the week of January 19th.

URBANA – At least 1,300 students plan to return to Urbana classrooms later this month, according to data shared during an Urbana District 116 Board of Education study session Tuesday night. School officials say their safety plans will be bolstered by access to a rapid COVID antigen test — known as the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card — that delivers results in 15 minutes. 

Urbana District 116 Superintendent Jennifer Ivory-Tatum said the test is about 98-99% accurate, meaning there will be about one to two false positives reported for every 100 people tested. She says the tests’ accuracy has improved over time and it’s a cost effective way for the district to monitor the virus. The tests are provided through a partnership with the governor’s office, the Illinois State Board of Education and Department of Public Health. The rapid antigen tests are free to school districts — aside from some small fees — and are administered as part of a pilot program to help the state understand the challenges of implementing testing across a range of school-based settings, according to ISBE spokesperson, Jackie Matthews. Matthews wrote in an email that the federal government provided the BinaxNOW tests to states. She added that districts are able to make their own decisions about target populations for testing, but that tests are not mandatory for either students or employees.

Ivory-Tatum said teachers and students who develop COVID-19 symptoms throughout the day will be able to get a test on-site at their school building. Meanwhile, she said, staff members can sign up to get tested once per week via a drive-thru testing site the district plans to establish at the Urbana School Based Health Center, which is located next to the high school. She said staff at the elementary schools and the Urbana Early Childhood School will be able to schedule testing at their buildings. 

“Rapid testing will provide another layer of health and safety to our, I think, already comprehensive return to in-person learning plans for both students and staff,” Ivory-Tatum said.

She said those administering the tests will be provided with personal protective equipment, including N95 masks.

Those who test positive for the virus will be contacted by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and instructed to isolate at home, while their close contacts will be notified to quarantine. In order to return to school, those who tested positive for the virus will have to wait 10 days from the date of their positive test, be fever-free for at least 24 hours, and have improving symptoms for at least a day. If they test positive but have no symptoms, they must remain at home for 10 days. Those who are identified as close contacts of someone who tested positive will have to remain home for 10 days since their exposure to that person, monitor their symptoms for two weeks and are strongly recommended to get a test. Adults who have no symptoms can get a PCR test — not a rapid antigen test — seven days after exposure and return to school if it comes back negative. 

Ivory-Tatum says they hope to begin testing the week of January 19th when students are expected to return to school. 

More than half of those slated to return to in-person learning are elementary students. They’ll attend school between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, while all students will learn remotely on Wednesdays. About 150 students will also attend school in person at the Urbana Early Childhood School, while at least 450 students are expected to be in classrooms across both the middle and high schools. The district is targeting special needs students and those who are at risk of failure, or who are chronically absent, for in person learning at the upper grade levels. 

About 1,100 students across the district will learn remotely — including 538 at the elementary level, 214 at the middle school, 307 at the high school and 46 at UECS — according to data provided by Urbana school officials. It’s still unknown how many of the district’s remaining roughly 1,700 students will return to classrooms. 

“We still have families that we haven’t been able to connect with that we’re still working on that,” said Urbana’s Assistant Superintendent of Student Learning Kim Norton. “Especially at the high school level, with grades just being due yesterday, we’re still making those connections to get those numbers firmed up.”

Urbana’s Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, Angi Franklin, said dozens of teachers have requested to work remotely due to the pandemic. 

“We are definitely getting more requests, more doctor’s notes not to return in person. And so we’re doing the best we can. I do think we can keep things staffed,” she said. 

Franklin says teachers working remotely can use Zoom to instruct students remotely. But she said the district is also working on hiring more substitute teachers.  

Ivory-Tatum said the district is also working on a messaging campaign to help families understand what the expectations will be for students when they return to school.

“You know, a lot of people are coming back to the buildings for the very first time since March. And that includes not just students, but teachers. So we really wanted to have some visuals to kind of remind people, you know, this is our new normal, unfortunately,” Ivory-Tatum said.

That new normal will include masks, social distancing, temperature checks and frequent hand sanitizing throughout the shortened in-person school day.

Lee Gaines is a reporter at Illinois Public Media.

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

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