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District 153 making plans for schools reopening

The District 153 school board, hoping students can return to schools for the second semester, is making plans for their return.

The board will conduct a special meeting at 7 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 7, to set a path forward. Although COVID-19 infection numbers are high now, school planning committees still hope there is a possibility students can attend Willow, Churchill and James Hart Schools for half-day sessions. 

 Parents of the district’s 1,900 students will choose to continue on a remote schedule, or have their children assigned morning or afternoon in-person shifts depending on their last names.  Schools will not serve lunch, but bagged lunches will be available.

During the school board meeting Monday, Superintendent Dale Mitchell said “if conditions improve dramatically,” the in-person schedule will be implemented. The district will notify parents two weeks in advance of the start of a return. The first target date for schools opening is Jan. 21 with parents notified by Jan. 7. If the COVID-19 numbers don’t warrant a January opening, then Feb. 16 would be the next option and March 8 would be the last option. If the March date can’t be met, the school year will conclude through remote learning.

Bus transportation would be provided for all students. Willow School’s kindergarten to second grade schedule would be 8 to 10:30 a.m. or 12:15 to 2:45 p.m. Churchill School’s schedule is 8:30 to 11 a.m. or 12:45 to 3:15 p.m. James Hart’s schedule is 7:45 to 10:30 a.m. and 11:45 to 2:30 p.m.

Assistant Superintendent Scott McAlister said a final decision to remain on a remote schedule would be based upon the seven-day rolling average positivity rate above 5% in Homewood and Flossmoor, weekly Cook County numbers, and the numbers of District 153 students and staff quarantined. The positivity rate for suburban Cook County currently is nearly 15%.

In recent surveys, 45% of parents said their child could go back to school, while 55% said they wanted a remote program. Parents are being asked to decide by Dec. 4 whether their child can be counted as attending school or remaining remote. Once a decision is made, it will be a permanent choice because of the planning required to set up a dual system of remote and in-person learning, McAlister said. The district cannot guarantee that all siblings will be on the same schedule.

Mitchell said because District 153 has grade centers, each school building planning team was allowed to consider which plan would work best. Each chose the hybrid model because teachers want to see students every day.

When the plan was initially announced on Friday, Nov. 20, there was much parent consternation that their children might not be kept with their current teacher. Shelley Marks, school board president, said the school board and administration reviewed the dozens of comments and made adjustments to try and keep classes together.

She explained: “The teacher would in the morning have the students choosing to be in person and in the afternoon the teacher would be with the children who are remote. The advantage is clearly that most students, based on the numbers, could keep their teacher.”

However this plan, applicable to Willow and Churchill Schools, would limit the time a teacher would have to work with students in either group, Marks said, stressing that final details are still being worked out.

James Hart School follows a different schedule. Students have six different teachers, so there is no guarantee that a plan would be available to avoid switching teachers.

Decisions are difficult, but Marks told the audience attending by Zoom that “overwhelmingly you told us that you approve of the job we’re doing and you trust our teachers and our administrators. So I’m asking you to maintain that trust. They’ve earned it.”

Mitchell said the 347 district staff, whether teachers, nurses, secretaries, custodial and others, have all worked to meet the challenges of this trying time and he was extremely proud of their efforts. 

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