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H-F schools finding ways to keep students connected and engaged

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is calling it an “act of God.” 

No one is to blame for what’s happening because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and everyone is trying to make the best of it, especially the schools in Homewood and Flossmoor.

ISBE first declared schools would be off until March 30. Homewood District 153, Flossmoor District 161 and Homewood-Flossmoor High School District 233 also had spring break scheduled, so schools were to be closed through April 3. Gov. JB Pritzker has since ordered school to remain closed through April 7. Whether that will be extended is to be determined.

Superintendents say it’s tough. Schools provide students with academics and help meet social-emotional needs. District 153 Superintendent Dale Mitchell said, for some students “this is the place where someone smiles at them, gives them a hug. So it’s critical.”

The district is calling activities during these weeks “enrichment” rather than e-learning. Although a survey at the start of the year showed 96 percent of students had a device at home, Mitchell said he’s not sure if that device, be it a phone, iPad or other computer, is available to the student during the day. 

Administrators and teachers will be working on a plan for e-learning should schools stay closed past April 7. The biggest stumbling block will be computer access. Because district computers link directly to the district network, staff will need to upload the devices with software that will get kids online. And then the devices will need to be distributed.

Flossmoor District 161 Superintendent Dana Smith said the e-learning program is off to a positive start. Third through eighth graders have district provided devices.

“It’s still an adjustment and nothing can take the place of our really high quality teachers being physically with those kids, but I think we’re in a good position right now, at least in the short term, to provide good content and effective learning experiences for the kids,” Smith said.

He said one school has a digital spirit week and students are posting pictures and sharing information online.

“This is a really unfortunate time, but it’s exposing a lot of innovation and creativity with our staff and students,” he said.

Although these school days don’t count on the state’s mandated school calendar, H-F is taking attendance and reported nearly 100 percent of the students signed in.
The district has been using the Google Classroom computer programs in the classroom, so it’s been an easy transition to e-learning.

Students don’t take devices home, but in this case H-F issued devices to more than 300 students who needed computer access. H-F’s student population is nearly 3,000.

“Taking attendance during this time allows us to identify students that may need additional resources and assistance, and allows us to contact them directly to meet their needs,” Superintendent Von Mansfield said. 

“After reflecting on the past few days of e-learning and the incredible preparation that has and will continue to be done, the words that come to mind are: gratitude, amazement and community,” Mansfield said via email March 19. 

“These are unprecedented times that require all of us to work together to ensure that the needs of our children and families are met.”

ISBE extended the deadline for school districts to conduct mandated state testing. Superintendents hope the testing will be canceled. Mitchell said doing that would add five more education days to the District 153 calendar.

The school board also agreed to add April 13, originally planned as a teacher institute day, back to the academic calendar.

The three superintendents each thanked their staffs for incredible efforts.

“We’re working to meet the needs of our children and families, and we also must remember that we need to keep our administrators and teachers safe and healthy,” Mitchell said.

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