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D161 school board pushes decision on possible hybrid reopening to Feb. 1 meeting

To reopen or not to reopen? That remains the question for the Flossmoor School District 161 Board of Education.

During a special meeting Monday, Jan. 25, the school board opted to delay making the call regarding a possible Feb. 16 return to in-person learning under a hybrid model for students in the district whose families choose it. The board is planning to revisit the issue on Monday, Feb. 1, but some members said they are ready to make the call after several months of analyzing the possibility from different angles as COVID-19 numbers have fluctuated.

“I feel this is a waiting game we just keep pushing off,” Board Member Christina Vlietstra said. “I think we owe it to our constituents — I mean our students — that want to come back.”

Board Member David Linnear added, “We keep kicking the can.”

Their comments came during a discussion led by Superintendent Dana Smith, whose report noted COVID-19 numbers “decreased steadily over the last few weeks, and we are approaching a window of opportunity to reopen our schools safely in a hybrid model.”

If that decline continues, Smith said the administration would be in a position to recommend a return to in-person learning. He also noted that decision should be made based on what is best for District 161, regardless of what neighboring districts end up doing.

“We’ll make the right decision for us,” Smith said.

Several board members said they are ready for a return to in-person learning through a hybrid program. That included Vlietstra, who said if the metrics are right and vaccines start to become more available to teachers, the district should move forward with the plan. She worried that waiting till a March 8 backup date would put the return too close to spring break.

“I would support going back on [Feb.] 16th,” she said. “If we don’t try to go back at some point, we’re never going to know. We have to start somewhere.”

Board Member Cameron Nelson said while the COVID-19 numbers likely would not change much in the next week, he was OK waiting to vote on the matter Feb. 1 to see if vaccine availability was more prevalent.

“That availability is at least important to me,” he said, noting he is otherwise ready to go. “I personally don’t see any hurdles to reopen.”

Linnear reiterated his stance that anything in March or April would be too late for him, and he thinks the district should reopen for in-person learning sooner rather than later.

“I’m definitely all for Feb. 16 going back,” he said.

The district surveyed families and staff about a possible reopening. Between 55% and 57% of families, separated by school, said they intend to stay in remote learning. While only 221 of 327 staff members filled out survey responses, 70% of those responses indicated a preference for staying remote. That latter survey, in particular, worried Board Vice President Carolyn Griggs.

“That feels like a concern for me,” she said. “We need our teachers to feel safe. We need them to enter the building with a desire to be there. … I’m really worried about the teachers. I am.”

Smith noted they were asked for their “preference” in the survey, so while 70% indicated they would prefer to stay remote, it does not necessarily mean they are opposed to returning under a hybrid plan. Still, he acknowledged there are concerns about hybrid learning among the staff.

“I think our teachers are worried about their safety,” Smith said. “People are going to be nervous, period. I think they deserve to be.”

Among the questions that remained for some District 161 officials related to reopening metrics was how much to fine-tune the data. A seven-day rolling average COVID positivity rate for the Homewood-Flossmoor area was included in the presentation, while weekly case count rates presented were from South Cook County. Increase in weekly count numbers and new youth cases came from all of Cook County.

Smith noted the seven-day numbers are “hyper-focused” data, which he was not sure was the best for making a decision. He said it is important to note the schools’ teachers often come from outside of that area, District 161 includes portions of other towns and a smaller sample size means larger changes in percentages. He suggested possibly expanding the area they are reviewing “to withstand a little bit of volatility.” Though, he noted they could not get data specific to portions of towns they serve the way that data is structured.

“It’s strange to me that we would ever not include all of our communities,” Griggs said.

Nelson said he would like to see several sets of data, including weekly numbers for the county, for H-F specifically and for South Cook, which is relevant to the district’s teachers. He said the youth numbers could be particularly “persuasive” because they represent the risk of people bringing COVID-19 to school. But he did not expect the local rolling positivity rate to change much from 5-6%.

“I would be alarmed if those went up substantially,” he said.

Smith said the risk of someone bringing the virus to school will always be there if they opt for a hybrid model. He said if staff ends up having to quarantine, it will limit the district’s options. And if the district has to go back to remote learning after enacting a hybrid model, that would mean teacher changes yet again.

“There’s no way around it,” he said. “You’d have to know it would be a major transition.”

He also noted that while student safety is always a concern, the biggest threat of COVID-19 may be to others.

“I’m not worried about the students,” Smith said. “I’m worried about their parents, the teachers, whoever they’re going to take that virus to.”

Smith recommended pushing the decision to Monday, Feb. 1. He said vaccines are in the process of reaching teachers, and there might be more information available by that date about their safety and ability to return without as high a risk of transmission. He noted the district also has March 8 and April 7 as backup plans, should the board elect not to return to hybrid learning Feb. 16. He suggested the March 8 date could be even better as it relates to giving staff time for vaccines.

Flossmoor Hills Principal Haley Marti spoke briefly at the meeting to say that teachers want to see a smooth transition, should there be a return. March 8 would be easier for the logistics of the district’s academic quarters, Marti said. She noted the safety protocols can be ready at any time.

Board President Michelle Hoereth said if March 8 provides more control over a smooth transition, she thinks the board would be wise to pay attention to that. Board Secretary Misha Blackman said she is looking for a smooth transition but could see a Feb. 16 return being beneficial to the students’ transition with some extra time to get comfortable before the final quarter.

Smith said he was going to get the district’s leadership team to weigh in on the matter before the board meets again Monday.

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