ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO) — Students in Winnebago County will return to in-person classroom learning this fall, according to new guidance released by the health department.

“School leadership in Winnebago County with support of the Winnebago County Health Department are committed to returning all students to in-person learning for the 2021-2022 School Year,” the Winnebago County Health Department said Monday.

“In-person is the default,” explained Winnebago County Health Director Dr. Sandra Martell. “We are committed to working towards full in-person learning.”

“Our schools worked very hard to maintain the hybrid model to maintain those environments as safe as possible, and they are looking forward to having the children back in full learning.,” said Dr. Martell. “We’re going to have to continue with some of the same things. We may still have to mask depending upon the transmission rates, but certainly, we’ve looked at the social distancing, increasing the air exchanges, upgrading some of the ventilation systems.”

Martell says the benefits of in-person learning outweigh the risks of catching COVID-19.

“We know that this has been a year of really, and I’m not an educator by trade, but social-emotional learning is really one of our determinants of health, and the experts are telling us we’re going to have to really work hard for these children to bring them back into the systems.”

Remote learning will still be an option for those with compromised immune systems. Martell says the Pfizer vaccine being approved for 12 to 15 year-olds will also allow for kids to safely return to classrooms.

“For the 12 to 15-year-olds, yes, we’ve already put those dates on the calendars with the schools, and told them to be ready,” she said. “We started with the teachers and staff, now we’re moving into the eligible students and we will continue that process to make our school environments as safe and really resistant to COVID as possible.”

According to the Winnebago County Health Department, “Transmission of COVID-19 in the in-person school environment has been primarily associated with activities outside of the school,” concluding that only 2% of students have been associated with an outbreak.

The health department added that the in-person environment has a positive effect on academic achievement and social/emotional development of students.

Schools will make an exception for remote learning if a student or household member has a medical condition which poses a significant risk from COVID-19 or other infections. In those cases, documentation must be provided to the school nurse.

Safety protocols at each school, including social distancing, vaccinations, and sanitizing will be utilized as appropriate, the health department said.