ELMHURST – Leslie Stettin is a mom of two children in Elmhurst Unit District 205, and had tears of happiness when she dropped off her sixth-grader at school for the first time earlier this month.
She wasn't sure how their day would go. She was relieved when she heard their emotions of how well it went.
It's made the last two weeks all the more hard.
Stettin is one of many Elmhurst parents upset and frustrated that the district on Oct. 21 closed its doors for two weeks. District officials cited county metrics that showed that DuPage County had reached the substantial community transmission level of COVID-19 in shifting to remote learning.
In response, Stettin started the Reopen D205 Facebook group, which now has close to 1,000 members. The group made their voices heard Monday night at a protest prior to the district school board meeting that approximately 150 people attended.
"It's a daily struggle," Stettin said, her sixth-grader noting that days are filled with less activity and more anxiety. "My son and I stayed up this past weekend and he was like 'Mom, nothing is the same. School isn't the same. Sports aren't the same. Hanging out with friends isn't the same. We're only 16 years old. We can't handle this.' Kids in general are pretty healthy and they feel their worlds have been turned upside down."
District 205 was the first unit district in DuPage County to bring students back to school earlier this month in a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning.
With COVID-19 case numbers and positivity rates climbing in the county, districts in Elmhurst, Naperville and Westmont have temporarily pivoted to remote learning. Others in Downers Grove, Wheaton and Glen Ellyn have remained in a hybrid model.
Dr. Mia Taormina, an Elmhurst resident and an infectious disease specialist, who said she personally tested and diagnosed the first known COVID-19 patient in DuPage County in March and hundreds since, spoke at the rally in favor of returning students to school.
"There is no way I would put my daughter in harm's way," Taormina said. "I'm a single mother and (my daughter) is all I got. She's not going to school if it's not safe. It is safe."
Superintendent Dave Moyer cited a countywide metric of cases per 100,000 population, which was 119 per 100,000 on Oct. 16 and has since climbed to 152 per 100,000, in originally moving the district to remote.
The DuPage County Health Department recommends remote learning when the weekly case count rises to greater than 100 per 100,000 people. Cases for young people in the county had also increased in recent weeks, and the positivity rate in Region 8 is now 9.5%.
Moyer reported at Monday's board meeting that the positivity rate for the Elmhurst zip code is now at 4.22%, but the cases per 100,000 in Elmhurst is over 160.
The district has said that it will announce a decision on Friday on whether it would return to in-person learning. Moyer said at Monday's meeting that he was trying to determine whether to use local coronavirus numbers as a basis for a return to in-person learning.
"It depends on how soon I can get an opinion from medical experts," Moyer said.
District 205 board member Chris Kocinski said he was in favor of integrating a more local view into the metrics for decisions for the district – pooling county metrics, local metrics, the district's own track record and the "growing body of evidence from other sources."
"I'm not convinced that operating with zero kids in the building is the right decision for us," Kocinski said at the meeting. "We have vast ownership of property assets in our district. We could triple or quadruple the social distancing."
Stettin likewise is suggesting that school officials change the metrics they weigh when determining whether or not to open schools. The county health department, while currently recommending remote learning, has also said that local and school-level considerations are important as well.
"Transmission is not happening in controlled environments at all," Stettin said. "My kids play volleyball for a club in the area, and there are a number of kids in and out of the gym. Controlled environments are not where this virus is spreading and I think a lot of the data backs it up."
Shirley Stilson, who has a freshman at York High School and an eighth-grader at Bryan Middle School, said that remote learning has been "incredibly inadequate at the very least."
"The fact that these kids have to sit at home staring at a computer screen – most adults can't do that," Stilson said. "They are distracted, they are not face-to-face with their teachers, teachers have not got to know them.
"Personally, for my own kids, my initial concern is what they'll lose academically, which is huge. But applying to the community, the rates of anxiety and depression are so high, we personally have to be concerned as a society what's going on. It's unacceptable."
Stettin has seen her son's math and reading score drop from the 86th percentile to the 53rd percentile. A former teacher, she hears of effects on children both mentally and emotionally.
"They cannot learn this way," Stettin said. "As someone who has a passion for education and cares about their own kids and the kids in the community, this decision did not make any sense to me at all. I see the effects and I don't understand why they are using the metrics they are using to determine in-person learning."
Stilson, a hospitalist, said that she believes that the numbers they have to go by simply do not support closing schools.
"I'd be the first person to say we should stay remote if it affects the school situation, but it's just not," Stilson said. "Schools are such a controlled environment. That's probably the safest place for them to be."
Stilson is frustrated that she and other parents do not know what is going on behind the scenes, don't know teachers' opinions and don't know all the reasons for decisions being made, and called being in the dark "incredibly frustrating."
Stettin hoped parents' message this week got across to the district.
"Honestly, this is simply about our kids, and what we believe is best for our kids," Stettin said. "If we continue down this route it will be catastrophic for our kids."