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Pritzker extends closures for rest of school year; local superintendents react

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Friday that school closures will extend and remote learning days will continue for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year.

“I’ve said time and time again, our decisions must follow the science and the science says our students can’t go back to their normal routine this year,” Pritzker said during his press conference Friday.

Pritzker’s announcement extends his previous order which carried school closures through the end of April. Mandatory school closures began March 17.

Bourbonnais Elementary School District 53 Interim Superintendent Margaret Longo said she appreciates the measured approach Pritzker took in waiting to see how COVID-19 trends unfolded before closing schools for the rest of the year.

“It’s an incredibly sad time for all of us,” she said. “But we totally understand with the spread of the virus and the number of deaths in the state of Illinois.”

Longo said the district has been preparing for the possibility that closures would be extended through the end of the school year as other states like Indiana had already made those decisions.

“It is an awesome responsibility to ensure that we are delivering education to our kids through remote learning,” she said.

Longo said she has been working with the district’s new superintendent Adam Ehrman, who is set to assume the position July 1, on ways to assess learning gaps and provide social and emotional support next school year when, presumably, in-person instruction resumes.

“You have to be thinking in five or six different directions,” she said. “What is now? What is next month? What is the summer? What is the beginning of the school year and throughout next school year?”

Herscher Community Unit School District 2 Superintendent Rich Decman said he anticipated Pritzker’s announcement that closures would extend for the rest of the school year.

While the district is prepared to continue remote learning plans, Decman said the experiences students will miss out on, particularly high school seniors, is a “terrible loss.”

“We are deeply saddened for our seniors,” he said. “I can’t express that more strongly. It’s a travesty, but we will try to do the best to fulfill some of those gaps.”

Moving forward, school officials will be working through some of the finer details, such as how students will retrieve things they left at school and return textbooks as well as what types of additional supports will be needed during the summer.

“We are as prepared as we possibly can be, but is this as good as in-person instruction? By all means, no,” Decman said. “It’s not even close, but we are getting better with it.”

Decman said this situation will help the district to be prepared for remote instruction for future school closures due to weather or other circumstances. Despite the small positive, seeing students in school again is the ultimate goal, he said.

“We want our kids back,” Decman said.

Kankakee School District 111 Superintendent Generva Walters said she was disappointed to hear about the extended school closure because of the experiences that students, particularly high school seniors, would miss.

“We had the academic piece covered as much as you can given the diverse needs of our families,” she said. “I’m really worried about the social piece, the activities and the ability to interact with adults and peers, that’s what I’m most concerned about.”

Although the in-person socialization aspect of school has ended, when it comes to the learning aspect, “we are still in school,” she said.

The district has been developing its use of a remote learning system called Learning Anywhere, Anytime for about two years, which has helped to ease the transition.

However, school officials are still prioritizing communicating with families to make sure they are doing OK, particularly when they have not checked in with teachers.

“We are co-teaching now with parents and families,” Walters said. “In our minds, we are just extending our learning from the building into the community.”

Momence Community Unit School District 1 Superintendent Shannon Anderson said school officials spent the past week preparing a remote learning calendar for the rest of the school year in anticipation of Pritzker’s announcement.

Although he is disappointed that students won’t be able to reunite with their teachers in person for the rest of the school year, Anderson said he understands the governor’s actions in light of the COVID-19 situation.

“Many of our students miss going to school every day, and those feelings are shared by our staff,” Anderson said.

He added that he “couldn’t be more proud” of the dedication and countless hours teachers have given to ensure students’ needs are met.

Riverside sets up isolation unit in 24-hour period

KANKAKEE — It is now called “The Tunnel.”

It wasn’t constructed as “The Tunnel.” It was never planned to be “The Tunnel.”

Necessity is said to be the mother of invention and in this case at Riverside Medical Center in Kankakee, a pathway never designed or foreseen at any stage of development for the fifth floor of the East Tower has become a vital link to providing care for those infected with COVID-19.

The East Tower was a key piece of a massive $65 million construction project and it opened in 2011. The tower’s fifth floor, however, was not completed as a 42-bed patient-care wing until the end of 2017, at a cost of $11 million. The 33,000-square-foot fifth-floor now serves as a 42-bed isolation unit where patients infected with the coronavirus — or those waiting for results of nose swab test confirming the infection — are receiving treatment.

But to enter the isolated unit of the East Tower, Riverside facility management constructed a negative pressure tunnel leading into the negative pressure unit. The tunnel is simply in place to help prevent coronavirus exposure of any kind for the staff or patients in all other areas of the hospital. A negative pressure area dispels the air to the outside rather than recirculating it throughout that area.

It is about 60 feet long and perhaps 10 feet wide and its serves as entry point to help care for those infected by a virus which has had a profound and likely prolonged effect on not only Kankakee County, but the nation and world for months and maybe even years to come.

The tunnel — designed and put into place in about a 24-hour period — provides the link for medical care to those battling the virus that has contributed to 13 deaths in Kankakee County alone. As of mid-week, the hospital had 15 COVID-19 patients and 10 others pending test result confirmation. There were 265 confirmed cases in the entire county.


The virus outbreak has been a learning moment for an untold number of people, including Riverside Healthcare president and CEO Phil Kambic.

Prior to the pandemic, Riverside converted seven additional patient rooms to isolation rooms. Kambic said the hospital will look at creating an isolation unit.

“Lessons are being learned. Should we create an isolation unit?” he said. “This will happen again. It helps to be even more ahead of the curve.”

What the hospital accomplished in a span of 24 hours to create the negative pressure rooms is actually quite an accomplishment. Chicago area medical facilities have been struggling with this matter.

“What we did in 24 hours, other hospitals have wrestled with for three weeks,” Kambic said.

Kyle Benoit, Riverside’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, put it another way: “It takes a village to do something like this.”

He added that, of course, new construction helps, complete with new heating and air conditioning systems.

Riverside not only had the staff on hand and local contractors available who could install the needed air-flow mechanisms, but having a nearly brand-new wing — which, of course, has the latest in technology and infrastructure already in place — certainly helped matters move at a lightning pace.


Another key aspect to COVID-19 care, Dr. Keith Moss, the hospital’s chief of staff, noted is the new monitoring system which allows doctors to converse with and view the patient and nursing staff from the nursing station, located outside of the isolation wing. The obvious benefit is the limited exposure to the virus.

Moss explained doctors can literally conduct a physical examination, with the aid of the nursing staff, of course, virtually.

Moss conceded this technology and concept took some getting used to.

“It’s very weird,” he said regarding virtual exams. “I won’t lie to you.”

“But this allows us to have conversations. We can see how they are doing. I can talk to the nurse as well to get a real feel for what is happening. I can check on swelling or things such as that with the aid of the nurse. I know I am getting more and more comfortable doing this,” he said. “But not in a million years did I ever envision practicing medicine like this. But there are a lot of new things that are fantastic.”

Of course, the ultimate goal through all of this is patient care and medical staff safety.

Kelly Frey, a nurse in the isolation ICU, noted nursing duties remain nursing duties, but the environment in which they carry out their functions has certainly been altered.

“Things are not always as textbook as we would like to think. We have to think outside the box quite often,” she noted, adding that the typical patient in the isolation unit a relatively short time — about 2.5 days.

She said perhaps the most difficult aspect of a patient’s stay is not being able to be comforted — in person — by family and friends.

“I’ve always been a believer that having visitors helps a patient recover faster. This has been quite a challenge,” she said.

She noted the hospital has arranged for video for family meeting. “It’s a way of keeping the family connected.”

Paula Pourchot, the infection prevention nurse, said nurses work 12-hour shifts and once they pass through “The Tunnel,” they remain in the isolation area until their shift has concluded. Upon leaving the unit, nurses shower and leave their scrubs there. The hospital disposes of the scrubs.

“This is all about how we keep our people safe. The whole goal is to keep everyone safe. We want to make sure people are comfortable come to work and comfortable going home.”

Kankakee School Board settles discrimination lawsuit

KANKAKEE — The Kankakee School Board has agreed to pay a $3,000 settlement to former Lafayette Primary School principal Lori Holmes who filed a lawsuit in 2018 alleging race and gender discrimination.

The board voted in favor of the settlement during a meeting Tuesday that was held via video conference and live-streamed on Facebook due to social distancing guidelines.

Holmes filed suit on Jan. 24, 2018, alleging she was discriminated against on the basis of race and gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act.

On Jan. 15, the U.S. District Court Central District of Illinois in Urbana ruled in favor of the school board.

At a February meeting, the school board tabled any action due to the plaintiff’s intention to appeal the ruling.

On Tuesday, District 111 Superintendent Generva Walters said the amount of time and money spent in litigation was a factor in the decision to reach a settlement.

“For us, it was worth it for it to be over,” Walters said. “Most of the work at this point is really done by the attorneys, but it was something we wanted closure to.”

Holmes’ principal position was eliminated at the end of the 2015-16 school year when the school district moved to grade centers.

In its decision, the court said, “Taking all the evidence into account, the court cannot say that the evidence would permit a reasonable fact-finder to conclude the plaintiff’s race caused her discharge.”

When a principal position later opened up at Taft Primary, Holmes applied for that job along with several other applicants.

In her lawsuit, Holmes alleged she was discriminated against based on her gender when the Taft principal job went to a male applicant, Terrence Lee.

In its decision, the court said, “it is clear from the record that Lee was just as, if not more, qualified for the position of Principal at Taft as plaintiff.”

In 2016, Holmes was offered an assistant principal’s job at Kankakee High School so she could be “mentored,” but she declined the appointment. According to court documents, she saw that as a “demotion.”

According to court documents, while Holmes was principal at Lafayette in 2015, she became the subject of a formal grievance initiated by faculty members at the school through their collective bargaining unit, the Kankakee Federation of Teachers.

“Complaints about plaintiff’s management style began surfacing from faculty members at Lafayette Primary School. They claimed the plaintiff had been threatening and bullying staff.”

The school district worked with Holmes to help resolve the faculty’s complaints during the 2015-16 school year. Holmes, in her lawsuit, alleged a hostile work environment based on racial harassment.

The court found that, “Even were the court to consider the claim, none of the evidence adduced demonstrates that a reasonable fact-finder could determine the plaintiff was the victim of a hostile work environment.”

28 cases of COVID-19 at Miller Healthcare

KANKAKEE — Riverside Healthcare reported mid-Friday afternoon that 28 residents at Miller Healthcare Center have tested positive with COVID-19, according to a spokesman for the Kankakee-based organization.

That latest number means that 40 percent of the 70 occupants at the facility have tested positive for the virus.

The remaining 42 residents tested negative, noted spokesman Carl Maronich.

All residents and their family members have been notified of the residents’ outcomes and staff has isolated those with positive results to the two halls now converted to negative pressure airflow. If needed, 55 residents can be placed in isolation via a negative pressure environment.

Negative pressure means the air in that location is dispensed outdoors, rather than being recirculated indoors.

“While we face this challenge, I want you to know how proud I am of the leadership at Miller and our entire Riverside community,” said Phil Kambic, Riverside president and CEO. “We are deploying every resource available for the protection and care of our residents and staff.”

Additional steps have been taken to maximize safety and minimize the spread of the infection, according to a press release.

The staff caring for COVID-19 positive residents are dedicated only to residents in those falls. The personal protective equipment (PPE) protocols of the hospital’s COVID-19 unit are followed at Miller as well, the release noted.

Miller Healthcare, 1601 Butterfield Trail, is a skilled nursing facility which helps residents regain their independence.