By Steven Graves

CHICAGO (CBS) — A decision to put a stop to sports and extracurricular activities at a west suburban high school has sparked outrage from students and parents.

Health and school leaders call the high school a hot spot for spreading COVID-19, but about a hundreds parents and students showed up to a rally that got heated at Oak Park and River Forest High School Saturday evening. They demanded the temporary ban on activities be lifted after what they call an out-of-the-blue announcement Friday night.

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The ban lasts until the end of winter break, meaning students can’t practice or play until next year. Students are disappointed, angered, and worried about mental health and scholarship opportunities.

Everyone is demanding to see data because they say what has been told to them is not enough.

The Oak Park Health Department said COVID transmission rates in the school are spiking, pointing to 17 new cases in the past week, with potential close contacts and congregating as a source. They are calling it an outbreak.

“The rate is four times higher in Oak Park and River Forest High School than it is the community as a whole,” said Dr. Theresa Chapple-McGruder with the Oak Park Health Department. “We’re trying to figure out what the best way to mitigate this ways.

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“I have less of a chance of being recruited for D2 or D1 schools, which I have the potential to do, but now I can’t showcase that,” said senior wrestler Camila Neuman.

“We only played six games my junior season, so to hear that again, it’s very disappointing,” said senior basketball player Justin Mulins.

It is unclear if students will make up lost games. The school and health department claim the decision was made after conversations with state leaders.

CBS 2’s Steven Graves asked the superintendent if this demonstration opens up more discussion. He did not say yes or no but said in a letter to parents that administration will closely monitor any changes over the next two weeks.

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The following is the full letter to parents:

Dear OPRFHS Students, Staff, and Families,

Thank you for your patience as we work to further understand the extent of the COVID outbreak at the high school and what we need to do to address it.

Please know that we do not take the impact of this decision lightly. 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.

Reasoning behind this decisionOne of the primary questions we are hearing is why did we take such an extreme step for what may appear to be a relatively minor number of 17 new cases in the past week?

  • The number of new cases this week puts the high school community transmission rate at 425 cases/100,000 persons. This is four times higher than the overall Oak Park rate of 110/100K. (For reference, 100/100K is considered a high rate of transmission.)
  • This is despite having a high rate of vaccination for OPRFHS students and employees. Overall 81% of our students and 90% of our employees are vaccinated. Yet, of our positive cases right now, 76% are fully vaccinated. However, most students are six months past their vaccination date, their immunity may be waning, and they are not yet eligible for a booster shot.
  • In the midst of an outbreak, the number of positive cases changes rapidly. Over the past two weeks, we’ve seen a steady rise in cases, nearly 30 overall, with the majority occurring over the past week, and 8 cases over the past two days.
  • There are an average of 50-70 contacts that need to be traced for each positive case. This typically results in finding an even higher number of positive cases. As a result, we believe that 17 is not the final number of cases for last week, and new cases will continue to be identified.
  • Even though we added additional mitigations, our cases have continued to rise. Vaccinated close contacts–which formerly did not need to take any special precautions–are not allowed to participate in any activities unmasked and asked to eat lunch away from others. They also were advised to get a PCR test 5-7 days after exposure.
  • Certain mitigations recommended for schools simply aren’t feasible at the high school level. For starters, the size of many of our classrooms does not allow for optimal social distancing. Additional mitigations such as restricting students to one classroom, quarantining specific classrooms, moving to different start and end times, and adding additional teachers and classrooms to reduce class size aren’t possible.

Our number one goal is to keep school open for in-person classes. With athletics and activities taking place this weekend, this was an area of density we could address immediately while we work as swiftly as possible to figure out a better solution.

How do we get athletics and activities back?We understand that being able to participate in extracurriculars 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 on line this week if at all possible. In order to do that, the following must happen:

  • Every person in the building must wear a high-quality mask. Health department director Dr. Chapple-McGruder is providing the district with N95 masks to distribute to all students and employees. They will be available upon entrance to the school Monday morning.
  • Voluntary saliva testing needs to be maximized to a level where it actually serves as a mitigation. 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 (which is already taking place).Therefore we need as many employees and students as possible to voluntarily participate. We are working with SHIELD (which, as we shared, had only just decreased our testing from five days to once a week) to get a team out to test on site twice weekly.In order for students to participate in testing, parents/guardians must complete the opt-in form in Skyward. Click here for instructions on how to complete the form, if you haven’t already done so.
  • Students need to be more spread out during lunch. We are taking over four additional spaces, including the Fieldhouse, for lunch. In addition to allowing increased distancing, these spaces also will provide better ventilation during lunch.

These are the mitigations we are planning as of now. Please understand, though, that this is an evolving situation and details may change as we learn more information. The health department is sending in a team of contact tracers to supplement the COVID team we already have in place.

We will provide an additional update as soon as we have any further information.