Local News

D161 rescinds staff reduction, plans to bring select students back Jan. 25

Flossmoor School District 161 is once again planning to have a limited number of students back inside of its walls on Jan. 25, and that was enough to save the jobs of seven district employees who were to lose their positions in a reduction-of-force that had been slated for the middle of the month.

The school board voted unanimously at the end of its Jan. 4 meeting to rescind a resolution, originally approved Dec. 14, that would have reduced educational support personnel by five custodians and two in-house bus drivers. The decision followed discussion about bringing back a limited group of students — special education, early childhood and preschool — on Jan. 25.

The total number of students expected to return on that date is 82, not including those who may do “remote from school.” That is similar to but expanded from a group of 44 that was brought back for in-person learning in late October. The group stayed remote following the Thanksgiving holiday break because of rising COVID-19 numbers locally and nationally. 

“We’re going to be a little more aggressive this time,” said Jackie Janicke, the district’s director of special education.


The biggest change for the students returning Jan. 25 is that the number of days has increased from one day in-person in late October to five for instructional students. Pre-K and Early Childhood students will go from one day in-person to three.

Students who were doing “remote from school” learning in the buildings may also return if they are Tier III intervention students having difficulty accessing remote learning, or receiving special education resources in reading and math. The district may also base the decision on standardized assessment scores, or if administrators notice excessive absences or lack of engagement, according to a staff report to the board.

Class lists are slated to go out to families by Jan. 12. A staff meeting is slated for Jan. 20, and teachers and other staff involved with the in-person instruction are to return to buildings by Jan. 22. 

More students could come back by Feb. 16. The school board is set to meet again Jan. 25, with a plan to discuss metrics and determine if they warrant a larger return to hybrid learning.

Board Vice President Carolyn Griggs questioned why the reopening criteria would be any different for the group coming back Jan. 25 versus the larger group being considered for Feb. 16. Superintendent Dana Smith said it is primarily a numbers game, as the Jan. 25 group will have small class sizes he called “way more manageable.”

“I feel way more comfortable with those groups,” he said. “We don’t feel it’s an additional risk at this point.”

Prior to that Jan. 25 discussion, administrators said parents and staff will be receiving surveys. The survey for parents, in particular, will give them the choice of a fully remote learning model (five days a week) or hybrid learning (in-person Monday-Thursday, remote on Fridays) for their children.

Officials stressed the importance of everyone responding to the surveys. Board member Stephen Paredes called it “almost mandatory,” noting he did not want to see anyone “default” to any option on something this important because they failed to respond.

“We really should know, one way or another, which way you’re going to go,” he said.

Board member Christina Vlietstra added, “This is not just a survey; this is a program selection.”

When asked by board member Cameron Nelson how long people might be tied to those decisions, Smith said too many changes slow the process but they could review it quarterly. It is easier if people say they are coming back and pull out of in-person learning later than the other way around, he added. But people would not be absolutely locked into any choice, he said.

“There’s always flexibility,” Smith said. “We don’t do zero tolerance for anything else. We won’t do it for this.”

Unlike the return for limited students, to which the board simply gave an informal “nod” of support, Smith said he would likely ask the board for a formal vote on hybrid learning. Smith said safety is the No. 1 priority that will drive both the decision and procedures if more students return. 

He noted that the board needs to know that children and teachers could get sick with a return to in-person learning, and they should have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish if they make that choice.

“We may have bad consequences with that,” Smith said. 

The second priority approaching the second half of the year is focusing on quality instruction and upcoming assessments, according to Smith.

“We can’t recommend a plan that’s going to be less effective for our kids,” Smith said. “If we can end up in-person, excellent. At the end of the day, it comes down to good teaching and learning for our children.”

He also made it clear that a return to in-person learning did not mean a return to “the way it used to be.” Under the hybrid plan, students would remain in cohorts during the school day to reduce the potential to spread COVID-19 within the school. And more than 30 pages of protocols and information regarding in-person learning during the pandemic are available on the district’s website.

Smith noted before the discussion that one person submitted a public comment asking if teachers will be expected to teach in-person and online at the same time. Smith said with the exception of some special situations for smaller programs, that is not the case.

“Primarily, our teachers will teach in-person or remotely but not both,” Smith said.

But if the school board decides the district is ready for hybrid learning when it meets Jan. 25, scheduling changes could mean students have a different classroom teacher than they currently do, regardless of which option their parents choose. To split students between in-person and remote options would mean shuffling teachers. The only way to avoid that is if the district sticks to all remote learning, Smith said.

Extracurriculars and elective programs — such as band, orchestra and theater — would largely remain remote. Many have continued and adapted to that format already, according to Amabel Crawford, the district’s director of learning and instruction. She said there was no reason at this point to flip them back to completely in-person. Smith added that with “a considerable number” of students likely to remain remote, those programs needed to remain remote to accommodate all students.

The biggest question that remains is what criteria will be used to decide upon a wider reopening. Administrators and the board have debated it at prior meetings but have not landed on a specific outline of what it will take. Smith insisted Jan. 4 that while the COVID positivity rate is not an “exact science,” a lot of districts are using it.

“We do need to have a hard look at those numbers,” he said. “It will be included in our recommendation.”

He said in addition to numbers and what the district will use, he intends to offer breakouts of certain scenarios, contact tracing and other specifics about what happens when illness is detected in the buildings.

“COVID will happen,” he said. “It’s here.”

Board Member David Linnear asked if the decision to return to hybrid learning would have a financial impact on the district. Smith said the rescinding of the honorable dismissal, which he had recommended “if we reasonably think Feb. 16 is an option,” would have an impact because those staff members will remain employed.

The school board originally made the decision to reduce staff based on administrators saying without students present they could not find work for those individuals to do. According to a prior report, it would have created a monthly salary savings of $16,000. But Eric Melnyczenko, the district’s director of human resources, noted in a Jan. 4 report to the board those staff members will be needed with a return to in-person learning.

“I’m so happy that we were able to do that,” Board President Michelle Hoereth said following the vote to rescind the reduction.

Smith added the district may also have to activate a number of buses depending on the number of responders hoping to return to in-person learning.

News by email

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Free weekly newsletter

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Most read stories this week