Sixty-four students have been inside the walls of Flossmoor School District 161 buildings in recent weeks. And officials are asking themselves if and how bringing others back to in-person learning is feasible.
The school board noted during a lengthy special meeting discussion on Monday, Nov. 9, that most students remain fully remote at this time. But 25 students are completing their “remote” learning from school four days a week, while 39 special education students have been on-site one day a week.
“We’re starting slow,” Superintendent Dana Smith said. “We want to make sure our protocols are working.”
But Smith said while other districts in the immediate area are looking to January for a possible return, the numbers need to support that and things remain uncertain.
‘We know that the COVID numbers in our area are going completely in the wrong direction,” he said. “I’m not sure what the future holds. … The numbers are ridiculous right now. Even having this conversation seems a little out of place.”
In the interest of focusing a conversation on District 161’s goals for reopening schools for large-scale, in-person learning, Smith posed three questions to the board. He asked what the goals and objectives of an in-person return would be; if that return would improve or maintain the rigor and quality of education being provided in a remote setting; and how safety protocols and processes can provide a “safe and effective” setting for students, staff and families.
“These three questions will help us decide whether we can recommend going back,” Smith said. “There are different ways that we can approach it.”
Board Member Cameron Nelson said his goal would be to bring back students for whom remote is not working well. But he said simply “juggling classrooms again sounds awful” for students, administrators and teachers. He asked if the best thing might be to see if a vaccine is available by a certain date, and then the district can set a return for a certain amount of days beyond that.
“If we could anticipate that would be coming, I think it’s a different conversation,” Smith said. “I think we have a lot of different options. We don’t even need a vaccine, necessarily. We need our numbers to come down.”
But Smith said the math is simply that as the volume of people in the buildings increases, the COVID-19 rates will do the same.
“What is our pivot point that’s realistic?” Board Member Stephen Paredes asked. “We’re in much worse shape than we were in the springtime.”
“Or last week,” Board President Michelle Hoereth added.
“The rate of increase is growing more exponentially,” Paredes said. “From a conservative perspective, this isn’t going to magically disappear.”
Board Member David Linnear said the district also needs to consider how to establish a social-emotional academic environment that will allow the children to continue to flourish.
“The remote environment does not allow for teachers to pivot in real time from presenting a lesson plan that they hope the children are receiving and then to pivot to where a teacher is actually teaching to the child as they need,” Linnear said. “As long as we are adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines, I think we can create an environment where we can be successful and return to school.”
Smith said following those guidelines — and those of the Illinois State Board of Education — is key to a successful reopening, along with having COVID-19 under control in local communities. Disregarding those guidelines would mean liability for the district.
Board Member Christina Vlietstra addressed the question of programming rigor from her perspective of seeing some of the remote instruction. She did not think rigor was there “at all.”
“I think we’re missing the buck with a lot of kids,” she said. “I think we have to remember that what we’re dealing with is a virus that spreads. We’ve done a great job of trying to maintain education so far … the best way we can through screen. But I don’t believe it’s effective for the long haul.”
She said a vaccine cannot be the “end all be all” condition of a return. She worries that waiting too long could mean losing students to private schools. And she wants to see some semblance of normalcy again for students who want to be back in the buildings, and for District 161 to teach them in a well-rounded manner.
“We have to have a plan regardless of what our numbers are right now,” Vlietstra said. “I just feel there are a lot of parents that don’t feel their students are getting what they should be getting by our standards. … The sooner we can give an option to our students to get back into the building, we need to do that.”
Vlietstra said she also worries about burnout for the teachers with remote learning. She said while health and safety are No. 1, mental health is part of that. She wonders if some teachers may also jump ship for schools that are open.
“It’s a serious concern that I have,” she said.
But Smith said private schools may have other reasons for opening the doors and are not subject to the same kind of transparency District 161 faces.
“We also don’t want to confuse educational decisions with financial ones,” Smith said.
Paredes said as much as he “would like nothing more than for my kids to go to school,” he worries about the equation constantly changing for the district. Even a vaccine may only cover a certain mutation, but there is no telling what comes next.
“What if it gets worse?” he asked. “What if it gets more complicated? … How can we do this?
“How can we increase engagement? How can we increase the quality of the education we’re providing? I think the ‘what can’t we do’ portion of that is going to keep growing. … It really comes down to health and safety. We cannot put people in danger like that.”
Board Vice President Carolyn Griggs said everyone wants to go back to the way things were on some level because it is what District 161 is used to doing. But considering the current circumstances, she said they should be looking at how to make the best of it by addressing “low-hanging fruit” to improve the situation.
“How do we do what we’re doing better?” she asked. “I want to look at how we can improve what we’re doing now while we’re still in it.”
Smith said the administration needs a roughly three-week window to bring children back to school. He said if District 161 is eyeballing a timeframe after the Jan. 18 Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as other districts have been, having these conversations now would put them in that position. He said any return would likely start as a hybrid of remote and in-class scheduling.
But questions remain about what the district is willing to take on to deal with the realities of learning in-person in the age of COVID-19, whether District 161 is in a position to welcome back students and how aggressive the schools would be in relation to safety standards, he said.
“No matter what, we will have quarantines,” Smith said. “It’ll never be safe; it’ll just be safer.”
“It’s just going to be a never-ending battle with no light at the end of the tunnel,” Vlietstra said.
Hoereth said the key moving forward is to figure out under what circumstances the district will reopen so that a plan exists for when those conditions are met. She suggested asking families what they want to see happen, and Vlietstra added similar feedback from teachers would be worthwhile.