Families protest as west suburban school cancels all activities amid uptick in COVID cases

Sunday, December 5, 2021
Families protest as school cancels all activities amid COVID outbreak
Families protested after Oak Park and River Forest High School canceled all activities through winter break due to a uptick in positive COVID cases.

OAK PARK, Ill. (WLS) -- The news hit Oak Park River Forest High School like a ton of bricks.

Effective immediately all sports and extracurricular activities are canceled through the winter break after 17 new COVID cases were diagnosed there in the past week. A large gathering of students and parents came together outside the school Saturday evening to rally and vent their frustrations.

"What's happening right now is completely unfair," said Vincent Czarnkowski, a freshman who competes on the school's track and field team. "It's out of nowhere."

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Zechariah Steiner is also a freshman on the track and field team.

"In seventh grade, COVID happened. In eighth grade, COVID also happened," Steiner said. "So I've been looking forward to something like track for a long time. And having it canceled again, it really hurts."

Oak Park River Forest freshman Ella Klem said she can't play soccer or perform in the school's band, two of her favorite things. Neither can her twin siblings, who are seniors.

Families protested after Oak Park and River Forest High School canceled all activities through winter break due to a uptick in positive COVID cases.

"I was like enjoying all of the clubs I was doing and it's really annoying," Klem said.

OPRF parent Judy Klem said she understands a need to be cautious, but remains frustrated by what she sees as the school's inconsistent policy on the issue.

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"It's hard for me to judge because I don't know what went into the decision at the high school about canceling all the extracurricular programs, but school is still in session," Klem said.

This is a school community that has done what has been asked of it. As of Dec. 2, the school said 81% of their students and 90% of their teachers are fully vaccinated, leading many to question why such a big decision has been made before other mitigation efforts were put in place.

"If you want to participate in an extracurricular activity, perhaps requiring being vaccinated. Perhaps asking for weekly testing of people that are participating in sports," said Jennifer Flodin, an OPRF parent. "Perhaps not having spectators."

The school superintendent and Oak Park's public health director, who ultimately made the decision to suspend extracurricular activities, showed up to try and answer those questions.

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A full three-fourths of the students who tested positive there are vaccinated, meaning effectiveness is waning amongst a population that is mostly not yet eligible for boosters. What is more, for each of the 17 cases diagnosed this week, there are 50 to 70 close contacts, many of whom are still being identified.

"Only about 100 to 200 students at this school are getting tested each week so we don't really know how far this is spreading," said Oak Park Public Health Director Dr. Theresa Chapple.

Superintendent Greg Johnson also sent an email to students, their families and staff.

"We understand that this announcement is disappointing and frustrating, especially as our winter extra-curricular activities were just getting underway," Johnson said. "However, protecting the health and safety of our entire community is our utmost priority."

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The suspension may not last as long as originally stated.

The superintendent said Saturday if the school is able to dramatically ramp up voluntary testing and increase social distancing inside the school during the coming week, sports and other activities could be back be within days.