Oak Park-River Forest school officials rescind decision to cancel athletics due to COVID-19 transmission rates

·3 min read

School district officials rescinded a decision canceling sports and after-school activities at Oak Park-River Forest High School amid a COVID-19 spike but warned stricter precautions would be taken.

In a statement sent to parents Sunday evening, Superintendent Greg Johnson said that the final decision on reinstating school programs hinged on how well students responded to new stepped-up rules aimed at preventing transmission of the virus. Everyone inside the school building is required to wear a high-quality mask, saliva testing will be increased, and there will be greater spacing for students during lunch periods.

“We need to see a high level of compliance on Monday before we can determine whether we can safely resume activities on Tuesday,” Johnson said in the statement. The superintendent said the decision will be released no later than 7 p.m.

On Saturday, parents and students, many in their athletic jerseys and sweats, gathered in front of the school to protest the school’s announcement that all clubs, athletics and extracurricular activities would be canceled for the remainder of the semester.

The decision came following a transmission rate the Oak Park Public Health Department said is four times higher than the rest of the community.

Protesters, however, did not entertain this logic, chanting “Let them play!” as public health officials tried to speak at the protest.

A petition on change.org also was created Saturday and had already garnered more than 1,000 signatures by Sunday afternoon. It called upon Johnson to “immediately stay the decision for cancellation of extracurricular activities” and hold a hearing to disclose all of the public health data that led to the decision.

In a follow-up announcement Saturday, Johnson expanded on the decision and stood his ground, saying the administration did not make the decision lightly.

“We understand that being able to participate in extracurricular activities is extremely important to our students’ well-being. We are working to do everything we can to put other mitigations in place so that we can bring athletics and activities back online this week if at all possible,” Johnson said in the statement.

Many parents cited declining teen mental health as a reason extracurricular activities should not be canceled for students. One protester held a sign reading: “Teen mental health issues are an epidemic too.”

While some may say the number of cases appears low — around 30 in the past two weeks — Johnson and the public health department explained the number of positive cases was growing rapidly, with eight cases in the previous two days.

The high school is not the only one in the Chicago area struggling with an increase in COVID-19 cases. According to the Chicago Teachers Union, COVID-19 cases at Carnegie Elementary in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood have grown in recent weeks, including breakthrough cases that have sickened fully vaccinated staff members. There have been 11 cases in the recent weeks and six this week.

Johnson said in the statement that administrators need greater participation in the mitigation strategies in order to bring back winter activities, hopefully as early as next week. Every person inside the high school must wear an N95 mask, which provides a higher level of protection than a cloth mask and will be available at school entrances, and students should participate in the voluntary saliva testing program.

“While roughly 2,000 students opted in to testing, only 100-200 have been participating each week. We cannot legally mandate testing for anyone except unvaccinated employees,” Johnson said.

Many parents who are against the cancellation of extracurriculars have stated that they are pro-vaccine and pro-mask, but argue the district has not proved extracurricular activities are responsible for the spike.