FULTON, Ill. — Because the River Bend School District has 25% of all Whiteside County COVID-19 cases, its board will keep high school students home for online learning when classes begin this month.

The River Bend School Board wrestled Thursday with a way to have students in class while keeping COVID cases down. The District planned to begin the year with hybrid classes, having students attend class in person on either Anchor days or Boat days depending on the student’s designation.

After a couple of weeks, all students would attend class onsite every day, wearing face coverings and distancing from one another.

But with the current rise in COVID cases, the District decided to extend the hybrid plan indefinitely for students in preschool through eighth grade. Fulton High School students will attend class online only.

District Superintendent Darryl Hogue said the District has 10% of the county’s population but 25% of its COVID cases. According to the District’s website, two teachers have been exposed to positive cases and must quarantine per Whiteside County protocols.

Though 88% of parents said in a District survey that they wanted their children to return to school, the District may keep all students home if COVID case numbers continue to rise, Hogue said.

Early in the pandemic, COVID cases usually affected high-risk and older people, said Cheryl Lee, Public Health Administrator for the Whiteside County Health Department who met with the board remotely.

Now that Illinois is in Phase 4 of reopening, most of the cases are in 20-29 year olds. They don’t stay home, and they spread the virus at bars, parties, weddings and other gatherings, Lee said.

A rise in case numbers is to be expected with that behavior, said Lee. Young people tend to have mild symptoms and to go out while sick, spreading the virus.

The good news, said Lee, is that daily death numbers and hospitalizations are not increasing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants children back in school, Lee said, but Illinois will probably be a little more strict with its guidelines than the national disease center.

Case studies have suggested that children under the age of 9 don’t spread the disease, Lee said. It could be because of their age, or it could be because they are asymptomatic.

If the results of the studies hold true, River Bend could send younger students to class and leave remote learning to older students, Lee said.

Lee suggested that schools keep the same students together every day to avoid spreading the virus to other groups of students if one student tests positive.

Board President Dan Portz asked if children can spread the virus to adults. Should River Bend schools keep students away from teachers, he asked.

Lee suggested that teachers stay at the front of the room and that they stay with the same group of students each day. The District should note which teachers are older and have risk factors that may make them more susceptible to the virus.

Middle School Principal Kathleen Schipper said she thinks students will mingle less if they move between classes than if they stayed in the same room all day.

Students need interaction for the good of their mental health, said Lee, so if moving between classes makes social distancing easier, it’s a good plan.

Lee suggested giving students additional time for bathroom breaks and giving them periodic breaks from wearing masks, requiring social distancing during those times.

Even in medical clinics, staff members remove their masks when they go to their offices, Lee said. She doesn’t know anyone who wears a mask all day long, she said.

Students and staff who can’t tolerate masks for health reasons — claustrophobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — may be allowed to use face shields. If everyone else is wearing a mask, and if students are social distancing, a few with other kinds of face coverings will still be safe.

“It’s not just one thing. ... It’s a combination,” said Lee.

“Most kids, if they get it, are going to be OK.”

Board Member Jane Orman-Luker said a couple of kindergarten teachers told her they didn’t think masks would be a problem for their students if they start the year explaining to the children what is expected of them.

The District will provide a mask for all students and staff, but they will be allowed to wear their own masks as long as the masks meet the standards of personal protective equipment.

Face shields are not allowed by the Illinois State Board of Education or the Illinois Department of Public Health. Face scarfs are acceptable, the District said.

Anyone who refuses to wear a mask will not be permitted to enter school buildings, the board said.

About 88% of parents responding to a District survey said they wanted their children back in school, Hogue said. That’s 587 of 950 students in the District.

Nearly 30% of parents said they would provide their own transportation for their children. Those who ride the bus will have their temperatures taken before they are allowed to ride, Hogue said.

The District plans to add bus monitors to take students’ temperatures, Hogue said, rather than requiring bus drivers to do it.

Changes to the plan are inevitable as the COVID situation changes.

“We have no idea what the right answer is,” said Portz, but District staff has been flexible each time Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker changes mandates.

They’re doing the best they can in a situation they’ve never seen before, Portz said.