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District 153 set to welcome students Jan. 21, majority will remain remote 

The District 153 school board approved a return-to-school plan that would have a limited number of students back in their classrooms in Willow, Churchill and James Hart Schools, provided COVID-19 numbers are within an acceptable range.

Fewer than half of the parents responding to a district survey said they wanted their children to return to school in January. Administrators believe the staff can successfully teach to both in-person and remote learners.

The plan gives parents two weeks notice before schools would open, if the positivity rate on a 7-day rolling average is 5% or below for Homewood and Flossmoor, and other suburban Cook County numbers are within a set range.

The second semester opens Jan. 4 and all students will continue with remote learning for the initial two weeks. The first date to return to school is Jan. 21. If pandemic statistics aren’t low enough, the next target date will be Feb. 1, then Feb. 16 and finally March 1. If COVID numbers aren’t low by then, the remainder of the year will be remote learning.

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The board voted 6-0 on the plan. Member Gregory Lawrence was absent.

“I wish there was a perfect solution,” said Superintendent Dale Mitchell. “Some of these decisions aren’t easy, but we have to make them in the best interests of our students.”

The district gave parents the option to have students return for morning in-person learning in classrooms with their teacher. Afternoon sessions for those students will be asynchronous. For students who continue to follow the remote plan, the classroom teacher will work with them in the afternoon, and they will follow the asynchronous plan in the morning.

Mitchell said 1,431 parents responded to a survey asking what plan their child would follow. He said 44% of parents agreed to a hybrid plan with in-school and remote learning. That translated to about 35% of the student body. 

The highest enrollment will be 11 students in a class. That will make it easy to meet social distancing guidelines. In some cases, the classroom number could be as low as three students. Mitchell said he doesn’t anticipate shifting students to even out the numbers, because that would move students away from their classroom teacher, especially at Willow and Churchill. At James Hart, 15 students in a classroom should meet the guidelines.

Keeping students with their teacher was a major concern of parents. Mitchell said the devised plan gives both in-person and remote students time with their teacher.

The superintendent said the remote number of 65% could be a bit skewed because the district automatically moved students into the remote program if parents didn’t respond to the survey.

Mitchell said he felt the high number staying remote also tells him parents believe the remote program the district developed is satisfying students’ needs.

He said the district will continue with its Virtual Learning Academy that brings a select number of students into the schools for help with class work and remote learning. Since its start in early November, staff reported a noticeable improvement in those students’ outcomes.

“It’s been really remarkable to watch the superintendent and assistant superintendent and the administrative team and the Homewood Education Association (teachers union) work together and then tweak a plan that was going to be best for all children.  And, give people as many meaningful options that would work for their family,” said Shelly Marks, president of the school board.

“It’s not perfect, but this is not a perfect situation that we’re working through. It’s as close to a good solution for as many families and students and staff we can possibly come up with. I’m really confident that we are going to have safe classrooms when the kids come back, and a place for children to learn,” Marks added.

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