Hononegah begins school year, all together, three feet apart


More than 2,000 students at Hononegah Community High School came together for the first time on Monday after a year and a half of remote or staggered attendance. The marks of COVID-19 were still present. With a mask mandate from Gov. JB Pritzker and Illinois' Superintendent of Education Dr. Carmen I. Ayala, signs were posted at the doors saying, "No Entry without Mask," printed by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. The decision to require masks at Hononegah was made easier when Dr. Ayala said, "Noncompliance is not an option. I will not compromise the health and safety of students or staff, nor will I risk even one child’s life." The goal of having all the students in the same building was made easier because the CDC changed their social distancing guidelines for schools from 6 feet to 3 feet.

Earlier in the morning, more than 40 protesters, including parents, community members, and smaller children, lined the street with signs saying "Unmask our children," "Freedom of choice," "I do not consent," "Free their smiles," and "I do not co-parent with JB." Teri Johnson of Rockton, one of the leaders of the protest, told WIFR that they didn't expect Hononegah to ignore the government mandate, but they want the government not to ignore them. She said they were not anti-mask, but pro-choice. When Eyewitness News/WTVO asked if she would be speaking at Wednesday's school board meeting, she said they had done so many times. "I don't need to show them statistics and charts as to why it's dangerous for children to be in masks. So I think they know where we stand on that." She said if they had a choice, her son wouldn't be wearing a mask because "masks don't work."

A week earlier, Hononegah Principal Chad Dougherty told a breakfast crowd at Roscoe United Methodist Church that when masks become optional, "we will likely make that move, but it's important that everybody understand that if we make that move, the number of quarantines will go up, for the unvaccinated students in particular." He said that, without masking, a single COVID-positive student sitting in the middle of each classroom for a day could send 48 students into quarantine. With masking, the quarantine requirement is much less. Masks are not required outside.

At the breakfast, Dougherty said, "We're all doing the best we can to get through it, following the rules that are laid out there for us, popular or unpopular as those may be, we're operating as best we can, again with the primary goal of getting everyone in the building." He reported that of the 220 Hononegah students who tested positive for COVID-19, only a handful of infections had unknown origins and none were traced to classroom contagion. The school asks that all parents and guardians complete a health certification daily,  online or via app,  before their students depart for school.

Dougherty shared another goal at the breakfast: "to help kids achieve more than they think they can." But he also said he wants students to learn to make it through times of failure.

Holding up a smartphone, Dougherty said. "This is changing adolescent brains... more than COVID.

Asked about critical race theory, Dougherty said, "Critical race theory is not something that we teach, it's not part of our curriculum. We do want kids to know they belong at Hononegah." Dougherty said that young people have always been tempted by "that desire to fit in" but said, "I want them to know that they need to be who they are when they come to Hononegah, and that they're welcome to be who they are, as they are."

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Dougherty said that many students who were fully remote are really struggling now, and the challenge is get them back up on track. He said high schools are judged by their graduation rates - the percentage of students who graduate in 4-6 years. He said Hononegah's graduation rate (93.78%) appears lower than it should because of its support for special needs students, who may stay in public school until age 22. Still, he said, "we really want to get that graduation rate to 95% or better." The Illinois state average after four years is 88% .

He said that two staff have been added to build community partnerships, such as student work experiences with local businesses. Last year, Hononegah changed its policies so college-bound students could participate in work-study without it affecting their grade point average. Though college is important for many students, Dougherty said, "Let me tell you, every college experience ends. And if it doesn't end in a career, it's not successful."

The Hononegah district encompasses more than 100 square miles and serves a population of approximately 30,000 in the communities of Rockton, Roscoe, Shirland, and portions of South Beloit since 1923.

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