Containing COVID

When a student or staff member tests positive, the district’s notification provides only minimal information. Here’s what that email means, and what’s still unclear.


Kyla Henige

CTE division chair Karyn Burmeister walks into West Campus wearing a mask on November 20. As cases in McHenry County rise, staff rely on clear information to decide whether to work from their classroom or from home.

Emma Snyder, News Editor

The parents and teachers of District 156 open their inbox to find another generic email notification that “that an individual(s) present at McHenry Community High School has tested positive for COVID-19.” Skimming through it, they realize that is the same verbatim email they got last week, which leaves many with more questions than answers and they begin to wonder if there is more to the story than people are telling them. 

This email notification is sent out to parents, teachers, and staff when a student or staff member at District 156 is positive for COVID-19. An email notification regarding positive cases is not sent to students unless they were in close contact with a person that tested positive for COVID-19.

“This individual(s) is now in isolation and we will report the case to the McHenry County Health Department,” the notification continues, adding that those who have been in “close contact” have been notified and that, otherwise, no action is required. It also details ways to further prevent the spread of COVID-19 and directs people who are symptomatic or have tested positive for COVID-19 how to contact the appropriate staff within the district. 

“If they were in the building, we inform … both buildings that there has been a positive COVID-19 test and that person has been in the building,” said Ryan McTague, superintendent of District 156. “But if that person wasn’t in close contact with other individuals, six feet for more than 15 mins, then we just send that letter to anyone who was in close contact. We reach out to individuals and let them know that they might have been in close contact with someone COVID positive.”

Currently, these email notifications are only being sent out when someone has recently been in the building and discludes any positive cases of students and staff are strictly learning and working digitally, however the district’s generic email does not state this.

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“If there is a student that we find out tests positive [for COVID-19] but has never been in the building for any in person learning at this point, there is no notification because the student hasn’t been in close contact, or any contact with any of our staff and students in the building,” said Terry Fitzgibbons, associate principal at West Campus. 

While the school community is not notified of these cases, they are still added to the total number of positive cases on the COVID-19 dashboard located on the District 156 website. 

“If someone is learning remotely or weren’t in the building we don’t report that, it just simply goes into our aggregate number that we have on our dashboard,” said McTague. 

The email notification also does not make any distinction between student and staff or from which campus the positive case came from. This has been a source of confusion for many parents, teachers, and staff. 

“We have so many students that travel and we do have students in the building we have so many teachers that travel back and forth and administrators to East and West Campus we just thought it was best just to send one letter to the entire school community so that they were aware that within our district we did have a confirmed positive case,” said McTague. 

In contrast, Fitzgibbons claims that the email notification to parents, teachers, and staff is sent specifically to the campus where the positive case was reported. The email notification does not include information supporting either statement. 

“My understanding is that [the email notification] is campus specific,” said Fitzgibbons. “If East Campus didn’t have a staff or student test positive that had been in the building, they’re not going to receive the notice.”

The district dashboard is updated every Monday and reports the total number of positive COVID-19 cases from the previous week. In the last update to the COVID-19 dashboard District 156 reported 3 positive cases the week of November 23. The total number of positive COVID-19 cases is unclear. 

The dashboard states, “Due to privacy laws (HIPAA, FERPA), District 156 is unable to share identifying information about individuals who tested positive for COVID-19. District 156 will notify any staff member or the family of any student(s) considered a close contact in a COVID-positive case. In addition, we will send out a general notification to our school community if a positive case is confirmed and if that individual(s) was present at one of our school buildings or MCHS programs.” 

The dashboard makes no distinction between positive COVID-19 cases being students or staff. It also does not differentiate between cases at East and West Campus. 

School District 155, which includes Cary-Grove, Crystal Lake South, Crystal Lake Central, Haber Oaks, and Prairie Ridge schools, reports their positive COVID-19 cases on a similar dashboard updated weekly. This dashboard, however, reports the total number of positive student and teacher cases as well as reporting the total number of active and excluded cases due to quarantine or isolation. 

With the number of positive COVID-19 cases increasing within the district, students have been unable to return to in-person learning, but will be asked to choose between a hybrid learning model or continue remote learning for the beginning of second semester on January 20. Meanwhile, staff must make the decision to teach from home or from their classrooms in the buildings. 

“[The increase in cases] has definitely affected my comfort level,” said Jordan Deener, Spanish teacher at West Campus. “I am afraid of getting COVID and want to avoid COVID at all costs. I feel that I am able to do the same job teaching remotely at home as I can at school.”

Margaret Carhart, English teacher at West Campus, enjoys being able to teach from her classroom and having coworkers nearby but, she has used her experience of teaching from home as an opportunity to gain insight on the isolation her students feel from one another. 

“I like being in my classroom to teach, and I feel safe since I am essentially isolated in there,” said Carhart. “But with the COVID numbers rising, I am grateful to be able to teach from home, while being close to the coffee pot, with my dog curled up nearby.”

As more positive cases are reported in the district, some parents and staff begin to let the email notifications pile up in their inboxes without bothering to read the same message over and over. Wishing they knew more, parents and students begin to think about the huge decision they have to make about returning to school in a hybrid model or staying home to learn digitally. Without more transparency amidst a global pandemic, this decision is harder for everyone to make.