Health department can't keep changing the rules

Was that a cough? A sniffle?

Did it take place in a classroom? Or a school hallway?

Then that student — and her siblings — must be sent home to quarantine until a COVID-19 test comes back negative or a doctor makes an alternative diagnosis. “Probable cases” (kids with COVID-like symptoms who are epidemiologically linked to a known case) will have to be quarantined, with siblings, for 14 days.

Any time kids experience any one of a dozen other symptoms (that also could mean a cold or flu), the same thing will happen. They will be sent home. So will their siblings.

This is according to the new guidelines issued by the Illinois Department of Public Health on Aug. 12. Yes, that’s right. Aug. 12. Just days — or at the most a few weeks — before schools across the state were ready to start the 2020-21 school year.

The document threw educators in Hinsdale High School District 86 for such a loop that the school board decided Aug. 13 to scrap plans for a hybrid remote/in-person schedule and start the school year with a completely remote model. And it isn’t the only district facing a last-minute change in plans.

The new response to COVID-like symptoms isn’t the only new directive that makes it difficult for schools to open. The health department has a new definition of “close contact” that includes anyone who is within 6 feet of a confirmed case of COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes throughout the course of a day, even if both parties are wearing a mask, at any time up to two days before the onset of symptoms. School officials have said that makes contract tracing, especially when passing periods are taken into account, virtually impossible.

Some might support the more restrictive guidelines as the seven-day rolling positivity rate for the state has increased from 4 to 4.4 percent this month, up from a low of 2.4 percent on June 23.

Others believe the measures to be too restrictive and note that while cases might be on the rise, deaths are not. The total number of fatalities in the state has been at statistical norms since July 25.

We are not medical professionals, so we’re not going to weigh in there. And as we’ve written on this page in recent weeks, getting angry about the decisions our volunteer school board members are making to try to keep kids safe is not productive.

But we can’t help but express our frustration at the way this situation has been handled at the state level. The timing of last week’s “update” on safety guidelines was ridiculous. We know the health department has had a busy year, but plans to reopen schools should have been a top priority for months — and final versions should have been released by early or mid-July at the very latest.

Instead, by waiting until last week, the health department left most districts with little choice but to approve a fully remote plan and working parents scrambling to figure out how to supervise their kids at home.

We all are struggling to balance safety and practicality entering the sixth month of this pandemic. The location of that sweet spot is going to vary from one household to the next.

Our beliefs might not line up with those in charge at the health department. And that’s OK. As long as they don’t keep changing their minds.