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D161 to test the waters of in-person blended model with return of some students

Flossmoor School District 161 intends to move forward with bringing a limited number of students in its special education programs back into its buildings as early as Oct. 26.

Jackie Janicke, the district’s director of special education, presented a report to the school board and led a conversation about a blended model of instruction for interested families with students, giving a possible start date and a schedule for the change. 

The board first discussed the proposal in late September. The return to schools would be for students in early childhood, pre-kindergarten and K-8 special education programs. 

In her report at the school board meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 13, Janicke noted these students are considered a priority for return to in-person instruction based on Illinois State Board of Education recommendations.

The overall group includes roughly 75 students, but Janicke noted that, as of Oct. 8, only 46 percent of families were electing to participate in the blended model, which includes in-person instruction. Students participating are to attend school one day per week in-person for two-and-a-half hours and continue participation in online learning on other days.

Janicke said this was seen as the “easiest way to transition that would also be the least disruptive to teachers and the least disruptive to families.” It also helps the district maintain proper safety protocols, she wrote.

Board Member Christina Vlietstra wondered if this model would best serve these students.

“I just worry that one day a week isn’t going to be enough in consistency,” she said. “I’m just worried that one day is going to throw everything off and be more of a hindrance than a positive outlook.”

But Superintendent Dana Smith said the district also needs to consider staffing concerns, and that has prevented the district from “being more aggressive.”

“Staffing issues played a big role in how we made this schedule,” he said. “It’s as aggressive as we feel we can currently be.”

Per a schedule in the board packet, student groups would be scheduled on different days Monday through Thursday, with Fridays always being remote learning. All schools other than Serena Hills would be utilized for the program. The current plan is to utilize this model Oct. 26 through Dec. 18, when the second quarter ends and the district breaks for the holidays.

Janicke said the next step after the board meeting was to ask interested families to make a commitment until the end of the second quarter. Parents can still elect to remove their children from the blended program at any time, but no more students will be added until after the Dec. 18 date.

Janicke also noted administrators were meeting with staff between Oct. 5 and 16, getting rooms ready and trying to solidify numbers for the program.

Board Member Stephen Paredes said he sees this move as a good start for D161.

“I think this is certainly a step in the right direction,” he said. “This will be very useful to see what goes well … to refine our plan to reintroduce all of our students.”

Smith agreed, noting it could be a gateway to bringing more students back after the holiday break. Smith noted “teachers have, rightfully so, a million questions,” and staff is creating a process for the program that is adaptable going forward. There is “a lot of planning, still a lot to be done” before Oct. 26, he told the board.

This change, Smith said, is an opportunity to build trust in the processes.

“I’m convinced unless we start somewhere, it’s never going to happen,” he said. “Our best opportunity is to weigh all the safety issues and take into account the perspectives of parents.”

Smith also noted this change provides the district with the ability to save positions the board previously considered reducing while students were not in session.

“It gives us an opportunity to utilize those people … in a way that’s not wasteful and very responsible,” he said.

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