Students file out of Urbana High School on Monday at the end of the school day.

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URBANA — The first day of Urbana High senior Tommy Wright’s final semester went fine, he said, though attendance was lighter than usual.

Several of his friends were out for COVID-19 reasons on Monday: some isolating or quarantining, some just staying home to avoid getting the virus. He’s not sure whether it’s COVID-19-related, but two of his seven classes were taught by substitutes.

Wright made sure to take a rapid test before he arrived.

“I feel safe because I wear a mask and distance from everyone, but a lot of people were out,” he said.

Area school districts are now facing one of their biggest tests of the pandemic era: How can in-person learning be sustained in the middle of the country’s most furious COVID-19 surge?

Active cases of the virus have soared to record highs in surrounding counties this month after a post-holiday surge. Most area schools begin instruction today or later this week.

The Urbana school district, one of the first to reopen in the area, announced a couple of new COVID-19 safety measures to start the year.

First, the district is offering additional drive-thru rapid testing this week at the former Central Office at 205 N. Race St., open Monday and Tuesday from 7 to 8:30 a.m.

Around 400 students and staff made use of the tests on Monday, said district spokesperson Katherine Tellez, and all testing-related tardies were excused.

In fact, all absences in the first week will be excused for Urbana district students if families notify the schools through the correct avenues.

“Please know for families who choose to keep their children home at any point next week, we respect that decision, and those absences will be considered excused,” Superintendent Jennifer Ivory-Tatum wrote in an email sent to parents Sunday night.

Absences ‘to be expected’Local districts reached by The News-Gazette on Monday were firm: in-person learning is a huge priority, and that probably won’t change unless the state’s board of education or public health department update their guidance.

Given Champaign County data, staff and student absences are “to be expected” this first week, Mahomet-Seymour Superintendent Lindsey Hall said.

Monticello Superintendent Vic Zimmerman agreed: “It is likely we will have staffing shortages going forward for the remainder of the school year as we continue to deal with COVID.”

Both administrators were clear: Unless the kids or staff are sick, they’re still expected to show up for school.

“We really don’t need lenience for absences because we want sick kids and staff to stay home when ill — this prevents the spread of many diseases. There’s no award for ‘came to school sick on many days,’” Hall said.

“Our goal from day one of last year has been to keep our schools open — we will continue to do whatever it takes to meet our goal,” Zimmerman said.

Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Superintendent Jeremy Darnell attributed the current stressors on school kids and families to be “largely due to changing rules and inconsistency in practice,” like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new five-day isolation recommendation for asymptomatic cases, which has not been endorsed by ISBE.

“Kids need to be in person for both their academic and mental health. That should be the focus,” Darnell said.

Masking at sporting eventsSome students, like Champaign Central senior Lauren Cassady, aren’t too pumped to return to in-person learning this soon.

Considering the start date of her final semester currently hinges on a COVID-19 test she took Monday afternoon, she would have preferred a couple weeks of remote teaching to see if cases subside.

“More of my friends have tested positive in the last two weeks than in the entire rest of the pandemic,” Cassady said. “Now that we know what to do with Zoom, I don’t understand why we wouldn’t do it for a couple weeks.”

Unit 4 Superintendent Shelia Boozer said her district planned to go ahead with in-person learning, though “it is always recommended that staff and students take their Chromebooks/laptops home with them in the event we need to return to remote learning,” she told parents on New Year’s Eve.

Urbana senior Wright, more than anything, wants prompt communication on school policies. The email about extra Urbana testing was sent to parents, not students, the night before classes started.

He also didn’t learn until Monday morning that outdoor lunch, which some students used to socially distance, would be prohibited until further notice due to “extreme weather conditions moving forward and to prevent 9th and 10th grade students from leaving campus,” Principal Taren Nance emailed on Monday.

Both students, as well as Heritage Superintendent Tom Davis, made one special request clear: better masking at sporting events. It’s been “very poor lately,” Davis said.

Davis’ district is dealing with a unique COVID-19 twist of its own. Students are finishing last semester’s finals week in January.

Heritage High School had to shut down its last day of the semester, Dec. 17, because of the high number of student cases.

“We moved high school finals day No. 2 to this Wednesday with some makeups tomorrow for students who were also sick that week before break,” Davis said Monday. “We are hoping that the identified spread has run its course during break as we paused high school boys’ and girls’ basketball and cheerleading about two weeks due to the high percentage of positives.”

Though Davis thinks all Illinois K-12 schools are “anxious” about the current COVID-19 numbers, he believes a fully in-person semester deserves a shot.

“My hope is we stay in school and have all or as many activities after school and at night as we can because the mental health of students has really suffered these past two years and the school experiences fulfill so many of their needs,” Davis said.

“From what I see, our kids want to be in school every day to learn and participate.”

Ethan Simmons is a reporter at The News-Gazette covering the University of Illinois. His email is esimmons@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@ethancsimmons).

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