Students at the Chicago High School for the Arts in Humboldt Park are taking extra safety precautions ahead of their upcoming winter dance showcase, a new spin on the classic ballet The Nutcracker.
Many dancers wear masks to rehearse on a recent Monday at the public school. Opening night is just around the corner, and junior Hayley Alexander says they’re being cautious because COVID-19 cases tend to surge around the holidays.
“It’s optional, but we just want to make sure that there’s not a spike in cases,” Hayley said. “You don’t want to have to [miss] the show because you’re sick. That would suck.”
As the year comes to a close, federal health officials are expressing optimism about the winter months. White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci says “we’re not going to see a repeat of what we saw last year” when the omicron variant took hold, overwhelming hospitals across the country. But that doesn’t mean the pandemic is over.
Both Chicago and Cook County moved from “low” to “medium” COVID-19 risk levels right after Thanksgiving due to a rise in cases. Health officials are also monitoring a recent rise in respiratory illnesses like the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which has led to the hospitalization of thousands of children nationwide. In a statement, the DuPage County Health Department said some kids are waiting hours to be seen in hospitals, and that others have had to be transferred to different facilities for care.
Even with these health concerns in the background, Chicago public schools have operated this fall with looser restrictions, allowing for Nutcracker performances and a nearly normal school year after years of disrupted learning. Students returned to the classroom full time last fall, but the year was marked by stricter COVID-19 restrictions, missed days due to quarantine and mask wearing. That came after more than a year of remote learning.
At ChiArts, a looser fall has allowed the school to move forward with all its major performances this year for the first time since 2020.
“I’m just super excited for the show,” said Hayley as she prepared for this week’s Nutcracker performance in a studio on the school’s third floor. “I can’t wait to be on stage with everybody.”
Hayley recently transferred from Art in Motion charter school, which also had limited school performances last year because of the pandemic. She’s enjoying meeting her classmates “face-to-face instead of being on Zoom.”
Despite widespread availability, vaccination rates continue to lag among K-12 students. At Chicago Public Schools, only 49% of all students are fully vaccinated, and about 160 schools have less than one in five students protected. The average rates are even lower at non-district schools, including charters, alternative and contract schools like ChiArts. At these schools, about 43% of kids have gotten two shots. At ChiArts, 73% of students are fully vaccinated.
And booster rates are far lower. Citywide data, which includes public and private school children, shows just 13% of students between 5 and 11 years old have gotten a booster of any kind.
“What we know about COVID is that it changes … it’s trying to outsmart our immune system. That means that it’s vitally important that people stay up-to-date on their vaccines,” said Dr. Daniel Johnson, an expert in pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Chicago.
He agrees a holiday surge may be less severe this winter than in previous years, but Johnson says it might be too soon to tell. He said officials are bracing to see whether a new, potentially dangerous variant might emerge.
“We’ve been existing with omicron now for almost a year. And the expectation is that eventually, we’re going to get to the next letter in the alphabet … the next variant,” Johnson said. “And that will then put pressure on our health care system.”
Families should continue to get their kids vaccinated and boosted to protect against severe illness and death. He says it’s still important to wash your hands regularly, wear masks in large crowds and stay home if you’re sick.
“We’ve been talking about influenza forever. And we’re going to talk about COVID forever,” Johnson said. “It’s not going away.”
So far this fall, COVID-19 in Chicago schools has mostly been on a slow burn. CPS has reported nearly 7,000 cases of COVID-19 among students since the school year began. Cases have been trending down since then, with only a few hundred students testing positive or reporting cases each week.
At Franklin Elementary Fine Arts Center on the Near North Side, only 23 students have tested positive or reported a case so far this year. About 65% of students are fully vaxxed. Principal Elizabeth Wontor-Leach said the school sent home COVID-19 test kits with every child ahead of Thanksgiving to avoid a spike in cases and may do so again before the winter break.
“We have to still keep that mindset that the pandemic isn’t over. And now there are other things that we have to think about and make sure we have proactive measures in place so that we aren’t in a situation like we were two years ago,” she said.
Franklin held virtual performances during the pandemic and had to “reimagine” performance spaces to protect students and staff. But things are “a little more normal” this year, and the school is even planning to increase audience capacity at its upcoming winter show.
“The arts have been a means of healing,” Wontor-Leach said. “And so for us, being able to offer those experiences has given us the opportunity to build back that sense of community.”
Business as usual
Last year at ChiArts, student performers had to wear masks onstage during the winter dance showcase. And space was limited to two audience members per student. But COVID-19 metrics have improved since then. So far this year, only 31 students have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a spokesperson.
That has allowed for masks to stay off during performances and for full audiences. This fall, the school held a visual arts show, an acting showcase and an arts festival. In December, it’s also planning showcases for jazz, opera and percussion.
Nicole Scatchell, a dance and theater instructor at ChiArts since 2016, said campus is “starting to feel like it used to” before the pandemic hit and students are making their own choices when it comes to health and prevention.
“Obviously we were back in the building last year, so we’ve had some practice on getting readjusted,” she said. “I think there’s just a little bit more mindfulness around health. But really, it feels like business as usual.”
Dance instructor Ted Seymour, who led rehearsal for The Nutcracker on a recent Monday, said the faculty are working together to put the final touches on the show, which runs Dec. 8-9. The story will follow a group of seniors who sneak into a party before winter break and get trapped during a snowstorm. Each section will feature different interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s classic works, including a jazzy, Duke Ellington-style version of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
Seymour said the school has been following the lead of the greater arts world in Chicago when it comes to COVID-19 safety protocols.
“I still go to shows and would say at least 50% of any given audience is masked, but you’re not having to see performers masked anymore,” he said. “They’re getting to live out their full artistic dream and give you the best show possible. It’s a good trade-off.”