As posted at Patch.com this evening….
About 200 people—students, parents, and other community members—rallied Saturday afternoon in front of Oak Park and River Forest High School to protest the cancellation of extracurricular activities for the next month.
The cancellation was prompted by a recent increase in students testing positive for the coronavirus and came at the direction of Dr. Theresa Chapple-McGruder, the Oak Park Department of Public Health Director.
Announced on Friday evening, the cancellation went into effect on Saturday and encompasses all clubs, athletic practices and games, performing arts and other extracurricular activities through winter break.
`Has to Be a Better Way’
Calling the directive “rash” and “with no supporting data,” protest organizer Jennifer Flodin opened the rally by saying there are a variety of “reasonable” intermediate steps and mitigation measures that should be taken instead of outright cancellation. “There has to be a better way.”
Students, including captains from the boys’ and girls’ wrestling and basketball teams, as well as those in the performing arts, likewise addressed those assembled on Scoville Avenue. They expressed frustration, disappointment and upset over the decision, calling it an overreaction that damages their mental health as well as opportunities for recruitment to colleges.
Lesa Kiefer, president of nonprofit Applause, which supports OPRF performing arts groups, said that there is “nothing to indicate” that recent performances have resulted in any spread of the coronavirus.
“We have purchased the things to keep our kids safe,” Kiefer said. “…now it is time to put them back and allow them to do the things they are passionate about.”
On Thursday, in a letter sent to families, District 200 Superintendent Greg Johnson noted that since the start of the school year the number of positive cases had been 41—or roughly three per week—until this past week. However, on the heels of the Thanksgiving holiday, 17 new cases of the coronavirus were detected this past week among students—or 1 out of roughly 200 students at OPRF. Of those 17 cases, 13 are people who have been vaccinated.
Overall, 81 percent of students and 90 percent of staff are vaccinated.
`We do not take the impact…lightly’
On Saturday, Johnson addressed the crowd, explaining the circumstances that led to the school’s announcement late Friday. In addition, the district posted an update on Saturday that laid out the reasoning for the decision as well as the path to resuming activities.
“We do not take the impact of this decision lightly,” Johnson stated in the announcement. “Yesterday, due to several activities going on this morning, we knew we had to get word out to the community quickly, and that a more thorough communication would be needed today. As a result, in this communication we want to address why the decision to cancel athletics and activities was made, and what steps need to be taken to resume them as quickly as possible.”
Among other steps, students and staff must continue to wear a face mask in the building. Also, the district detailed other preventative approaches, such as spreading students out during the lunch hour and increasing the number of students who voluntarily participate in the school’s saliva-testing program.
The full announcement can be found here on the OPRF website.
After Johnson’s initial remarks, Chapple-McGruder addressed the crowd. She noted that the rate of transmission is four times higher at the high school than throughout the community overall, and “we’re trying to figure out” the best ways to mitigate its spread.
Protesters Jeer Oak Park Director of Public Health
While some had jeered Johnson, the heckling intensified when Chapple-McGruder spoke. Dozens greeted her comments with anger and criticism. Among other concerns, they questioned the basis for her decision as well as the severity of symptoms experienced by students who have tested positive for COVID.
“How many have been hospitalized?” was shouted several times.
At one point, a chant of “let them play” rose up. That prompted Chapple-McGruder to reply, “All right, all right. So the way that you get to play is to let me finish,” which spurred on more boos. A short time later, as Chapple-McGruder detailed concerns about students’ physical well-being as a result of the coronavirus, a man shouted, “What about their mental health, you idiot?”
At the onset of the pandemic’s impact in the community, in March 2020, emergency powers were granted to Chapple-McGruder’s predecessor, Mike Charley, to enable swift response to evolving circumstances. Those powers were renewed multiple times over the past 20 months.
Chapple-McGruder joined the village in May.
After her emergency powers lapsed on November 15th, the Oak Park Village Board of Trustees took up the matter at its Nov. 22nd meeting. In a 4-3 vote, the board opted to restore that authority, with Village President Vicki Scaman casting the tie-breaking vote.
Links to Chicago television news coverage of this developing story:
Oak Park And River Forest High School Ban On Activities Due To COVID Outbreak Sparks Outrage
Families protest as west suburban school cancels all activities amid uptick in COVID cases
OPRF Students, Parents Gather in Protest of School Canceling Sports, Activities After COVID Surge
OPRF Families Gather in Protest of Activity Cancelations Amid COVID Surge