What will school look like in the fall? No one has the answer.
It is unlikely that this coming school year will resemble school before the COVID-19 pandemic. Administrators are planning different scenarios: continue remote learning or a blended schedule for remote learning with a limited return to the classrooms.
Superintendent Von Mansfield at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, Superintendent Dana Smith at Flossmoor District 161 and Superintendent Dale Mitchell at Homewood District 153 talk on a regular basis about possible options.
It seems at every turn there’s another issue. For example, if schools open on a modified schedule with some students attending Monday-Wednesday and others Tuesday-Thursday, it still doesn’t answer the concerns of parents on how to coordinate that schedule.
“It would not guarantee that kids from a family were all on the same schedule, and we’d also have to make sure that those families had a work situation that would allow them to potentially be home several days per week,” Smith said. “The number of challenges for our community and families is maybe insurmountable.”
Decisions are hard to make because there’s no clear word on when Illinois will move to Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan. Districts are waiting for direction from the Illinois State Board of Education. At the ISBE meeting June 17 it was recommended all students at school wear face masks and follow social distancing guidelines when possible.
ISBE said it would provide additional guidance in line with the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Once Illinois is in Phase 4, group sizes are limited. At Homewood-Flossmoor High School, estimates are only 650 students would be allowed back at one time. The school has a population of nearly 3,000.
In the meantime, “We’re gathering information for a multi-faceted approach,” said Jodi Bryant, H-F public relations director. H-F surveyed families asking for an assessment of remote learning and is designing a second survey to hear from parents, students and staff on what expectations are for school in the fall.
Principal Jerry Anderson told District 233 school board members June 16 that a committee is in place to review outcomes and develop working plans for the coming year. They are examining logistics, including attendance, grading and academic honesty; instructional design and how to develop activities that will engage students; strengthening relationships between students and teachers, especially in a remote learning environment; and professional development needs for faculty who have been thrust into a new teaching environment.
If students can return to the building, what will it mean for bus service, and will it include a lunch period? Mansfield said administrators are also wondering what extracurricular activities and sports might look like.
The pandemic has increased the district’s costs related to technology, personal protective equipment (PPE) and legal services. Savings have come in transportation and cleaning costs, reduced security needs and fewer teachers needed for summer school, according to Business Manager Lawrence Cook.
In Homewood District 153, Mitchell told the school board at its June 8 meeting that he was pleasantly surprised to receive 500 survey responses from parents. Responses focused on parents’ hopes that students can be back with teachers “even if it’s only a couple times a week. Kids need that social/emotional support,” Mitchell said.
The district has a 25-member task force that’s looking at all aspects of the return-to-school issue. Mitchell said he hoped to have some plans for the future to present to the board in July.
Mitchell said the district is aware of equity concerns. One part of that will be taken care of in fall when sixth, seventh and eighth graders at James Hart School will have their own devices to take home, and plans are underway to provide devices for third, fourth and fifth graders at Churchill School.
District 161 has been offering virtual summer school that focuses on students working in small groups and one-to-one instruction. Smith said the pilot program will give insights on what may be possible and necessary in fall for remote learning.
“I think we are hoping for an in-person start to the school year. That is the way to do school,” he said, “but short of that, if we do have to start remotely I feel we’re in a much better position this August than we were in March.”