Masked But Back

Parker Returns Fully On-Campus Despite Delta Variant


Photo credit: Caroline Skok

The alcove is quiet as students wait for the start of school. Photo by Caroline Skok.

When school ended in early June 2021, the daily average of COVID-19 cases in Chicago had dropped below 100, eligible Parker community members had an over 80% vaccination rate, and President Joe Biden removed the mask mandate for vaccinated Americans. 

Three months later, the Chicago coronavirus landscape has shifted after the rise of the Delta variant and so has Parker’s reopening plan for the 2021-22 school year. 

Parker will be returning to full in-person instruction, with masks required inside regardless of vaccination status and weekly saliva screening for unvaccinated individuals. Remote learning will only be offered in the event of a quarantine.

The health and safety plan, called the “Better New Normal” by Upper School Head Chris Arnold in an August 20 email, has been communicated in several emails throughout the summer as the Delta variant made the coronavirus cases surge. Though many health and safety protocols remain from Spring 2021, the school is re-introducing more community engagement events such as admissions tours, on-campus parent mixers, and orientation.

“We’ll slowly have a re-engagement of face-to-face, mask-to-mask community, but we’ll do it thoughtfully and step-by-step,” Principal Dan Frank said.

All employees and students were required to return saliva samples to campus by Tuesday, September 7, the day before school began. Unvaccinated community members will continue to be saliva screened weekly. Breakthrough cases of the vaccinated will be handled on a case-by-case basis, Frank said.

Visitors are required to provide proof of vaccination, a negative PCR test, or proof of recent coronavirus infection to schedule an appointment to visit the school between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., per a school-wide email sent on August 25. 

Families will also be required to fill out three forms and waivers: the COVID-19 Waiver, the Community Social Contract, and the COVID-19 Screening Consent Form. The Social Contract contains guidelines that were also in-place last spring, such as daily health screenings on the Ruvna app and restricted access to water fountains. 

Frank suggested that traditions such as Big Brother Big Sisters would be moved to the field and that Morning Exercise may be limited to 7-12 in the auditorium with a Zoom option for younger students or held in smaller groups for the Lower and Intermediate school divisions.

Senior and Executive Advisor Ivy Jacobs met with Arnold this summer to provide feedback on a draft of the “Better New Normal” schedule. Though she said she knows plans could change with the Delta variant, she feels excited to start the year at 330 W Webster.

“I’m not mourning my senior year yet because our first day will be in-person, we’ll get to leave campus, we’ll get to be in large groups of people and face directions other than forward,” Jacobs said.

There was some discussion in early July of vaccinated classes taking their masks off within the room until “it was clear that Delta had taken a surge,”’ Frank said. 

“It was best to play it safe and be respectful of the ways in which even vaccinated people could be positive and asymptomatic,” Frank said.

“I had a brief glimpse of hope that we wouldn’t have to wear masks in the building,” Jacobs said. “That is a little disappointing but also very understandable so that doesn’t really change my excitement for the school year.”

Some privileges will be reintroduced for the Middle and Upper School. Grades 7-12 will have increased access to the cafeteria servery for lunch and breakfast according to an email from Chef Zac Maness. Younger non-vaccinated students will eat in their classrooms and either pack lunch or pre-order from question. 

“We hope to provide peace of mind, nourishment and support while we all continue to adjust to these changing times,” Maness said. 

The varying protocols for meals are one example of the school’s approach to its K-12 health needs and the 12+ authorization of the Pfizer vaccine.

“We’re in one big giant building under one big roof, and that’s something we really cherish and celebrate,” Frank said. “We have to recognize, half the population of the school is not vaccinated.”

Parker parent Kellie Fitzgerald said she feels that the benefits of sending her unvaccinated lower schooler in-person outweigh the risks presented by the Delta variant.

“​​Everybody has that drumbeat of doubt, but that’s just like a natural part of parenting during the pandemic, less about what the school is doing,” Fitzgerald said. “Because younger kids are unable to be vaccinated, it feels even more risky.”

Governor Pritzker mandated vaccines for educators through the college level in Illinois. “We’ve done our own very Parker style, personal touch, connections to all the employees,” Frank said. “We’ll follow that process even though just about everybody is vaccinated.”

Parker has not yet issued a vaccine mandate for eligible students after Food and Drug Administration approval and their current policy remains “Vaccine Encouragement.”

Though vaccination rates within the school have changed its approach to some health and safety protocols, Frank said the 2021-22 reopening plan was based on their full in-person launch last spring when K-12 returned in-person with three feet of physical distance.

“We had tested a model that would work well,” Frank said.

The Latin School of Chicago is also keeping a similar protocol to their last semester, with weekly saliva screenings for the unvaccinated, though they have removed daily health screenings per their website.

After multiple temporary changes last semester, the Upper School has released a long-term academic schedule beginning on September 8. Jacobs said that when she met with Arnold, she saw how the schedule was influenced by the updated health and safety policies, with an extended advisory period set aside for students to potentially leave campus.

“They decided to put Morning Flex on the schedule in hopes of being able to have at least cross-high-school meetings and gatherings,” Jacobs said.

Frank said that adjustments like these were made to help the “intellectual, social and emotional experience” during the pandemic and beyond.

“There’s some things we can’t control –whatever the CDC or the Chicago Department of Public Health says,” Frank said. “We tried to pull the levers we could about the quality of experience for students and teachers.”