Uptick in COVID cases prompts temporary extracurricular ban

On Dec. 4, OPRF students and community members rallied in front of OPRF to protest Superintendent Greg Johnson’s decision to postpone all District 200 athletic practices, events, clubs, and other extracurricular activities through winter break.

Student Council representatives; team members from boys and girls basketball, boys and girls wrestling, and hockey; parents; board members — everyone gathered on Scoville Avenue, wielding handmade signs and hoping to make a difference.

Student athletes gave speeches to the cheering crowd about how the decision would damage their seasons and college recruitment. After those speeches, Jennifer Flodin, an OPRF parent and organizer of the event, gave a passionate speech about her frustration with the decision.

This excitement quickly turned into anger as Superintendent Greg Johnson and Oak Park Public Health Director Theresa Chapple-McGruder took to the microphones with prepared statements. Their speeches were constantly interrupted with shouts of “stop with the prepared speech,” “what outbreak,” or “defund the health department” as they explained the situation to the protestors.

When Chapple-McGruder addressed the crowd, protesters chanted, “Let them play!” After the crowd quieted down, Chapple-McGruder said “The way you get to play is to let me finish.” The crowd erupted in more booing.

The announcement came as a shock to athletes, most of whom were starting their seasons.

“We can’t grow because we will miss out on a lot of matches,” said senior wrestler Jalen Dunson. “These matches we will miss are super crucial elements to our development.”

The decision came following a report of 17 positive COVID-19 cases at OPRF the week of Nov. 29, compared to four positive cases the previous week.

“The decision was the best possible decision we could make at the time,” said Karin Sullivan, OPRF’s executive director of communications. “I was part of the decision making, I stand behind it 100%.”

The transmission rate of COVID-19 at OPRF is over 400 cases per 100,000 people, which Sullivan said is “four times (higher than) what is happening in the community.”

“COVID is here to stay, and the knee-jerk reaction of shutting down activities to reduce the spread of it is not a well thought-out decision,” Flodin said. “You can’t continue to take things away from kids that impact their lives.”

Board President Sara Spivy, who attended the rally, said she was notified of the health department’s directive around 4 p.m. Dec. 3.

“This was not an easy decision, or a knee-jerk decision, or a thoughtless decision,” Spivy said. “I have heard a narrative out there that this was due to the administration not caring about students or Dr. Chapple-McGruder not caring about students. That makes me really sad because I have seen no evidence of that.”

When asked about why the decision was made if alternative measures were possible, Spivy said “If we had the luxury of going back four days, knowing what we know now, decisions would have happened differently.”

In a Dec. 7 board meeting, Johnson clarified questions surrounding his initial decision. Johnson said he was on a call with Chapple-McGruder around 5:30 p.m. Dec. 3 when she presented him with a number of options to limit the spread of COVID within the school. One option was to have 80% of students participate in saliva testing, though less than 70% of students had opted in for testing at the time. Chapple-McGruder also proposed spacing out students in classes, which Johnson said was not immediately possible due to large class sizes. Another option was to cancel all extracurricular activities until winter break, the option Johnson initially chose.

At 8 p.m. that evening, approximately two and a half hours after his call with Chapple-McGruder, Johnson sent out an email to the OPRF community announcing all extracurriculars would be canceled through winter break.

On Dec. 5, two days after the initial announcement, Johnson sent another email detailing a plan to allow extracurriculars to resume on Dec. 7.

The plan required students to wear a high quality mask, defined as a surgical mask, N95 mask, or KN95 mask.

Along with new mask requirements and more testing, Johnson asked that students spread out more during lunch. The balcony was permanently closed during lunch and replaced with lunch tables in the Fieldhouse. A space was created in the 1 East Gym for vaccinated students identified as close contacts. Freshmen through seniors were allowed to eat lunch off campus. Previously, only juniors and seniors were allowed to leave campus for lunch.

Before the week of Dec. 6, about three percent of OPRF students participated in saliva testing. Sullivan said “As many as 200 people participated in the program each week.” Initially, about 2,000 students and 200 employees opted in for the program, but the school can’t enforce weekly participation.

PE classes were dedicated towards ensuring as many students as possible were voluntarily saliva tested. Students were directed to the Little Theatre or Auditorium during their PE classes to be tested.

“PE teachers have been absolute heroes,” Sullivan said.

On Friday evening, Sullivan said the health department told the administration they needed at least 80% of students to be saliva tested for clubs, activities, and sports to return to normal, while only 60% of students were opted in. Over the weekend, Sullivan said “the figure was relaxed to ‘as many as possible.’”

Finally, Johnson sent out another email Dec. 6 stating “All athletics, activities, clubs, and performances will resume as usual tomorrow.” All mitigation measures imposed will remain in effect until the end of the semester. A second round of saliva testing took place Dec. 9.

Sullivan said the school set a SHIELD record for one day collections with 1,651 completed tests collected Dec. 6. Twenty positive tests were identified, a 1.2% positivity rate.

“These solutions — giving up instructional time and instructional spaces — are not sustainable in the long term,” Sullivan said. “But they made it possible to get us through until break.”