Community Unit School District 7 students will have the option of attending in-person classes when the winter break ends on Monday, Jan. 11 as a result of action taken by the Board of Education during a special meeting Thursday night.
On a motion by Bill Carter, seconded by Jenni Alepra, the board voted unanimously to re-open district schools for in-classroom learning on the same four-day schedule that was in place when the schools were closed Nov. 30 in response to increasing numbers of COVID-19. Reading from a prepared statement after the vote, Supt. Shane Owsley said the district may consider restoring a five-day schedule as of Jan. 25. The five-day schedule, if approved, will have an early dismissal for students at 1 p.m. Online learning will remain available for parents who are uncomfortable with sending their children into the classroom.
All seven of the board’s elected members were physically present in the Gillespie Middle School cafeteria, along with Owsley and other “essential school district personnel” to keep the number of persons present under 10 individuals. Members of the public and media were allowed to observe the meeting via the Zoom teleconferencing system. Owsley said the protocol was put in place to comply with COVID-19 mitigation orders put in place by Gov. JB Pritzker.
Owsley said the measures ensured that members of the public were treated equally. “The district does not want to be placed in a position where it must pick and choose which members of the public can attend in-person versus which members must attend remotely,” Owsley read.
Following the vote on returning to the hybrid learning plan, Owsley read from a statement that will be sent to district parents and guardians to announce the return to in-person/remote learning.
The hybrid learning plan complies with Tier 3 COVID-19 mitigations imposed by the state, Owsley said.
“Tier 3 mitigations are scheduled to expire on Jan. 9,” Owsley said. “At this point there is no word on whether these mitigations will be extended or relaxed.”
There also have been no updates from IHSA/IESA regarding athletics, Owsley noted, but an IHSA meeting is scheduled Jan. 13. “Once further information is provided,” Owsley said, “it will be provided to our coaching staffs and families.”
Owsley also reminded the community that the district could return to remote learning “at a moment’s notice” if circumstances change.
“A return to remote instruction may be caused by an outbreak within a classroom or building, a high percentage of students or staff having to be quarantined, or simply not having enough substitutes to cover our classes,” Owsley said. “A return to remote instruction may also be necessary if the positivity rate of our county would again return to an alarming rate. The safety of our students and staff will always be our primary focus.”
Owsley acknowledged that teachers will again be expected to provide meaningful instruction for both in-person and remote access students. “The administration team and Board of Education understand what a challenging task this is and have full faith that the staff at CUSD 7 is once again up for the challenge,” Owsley said. In November, building principals reported to the board that about 30 percent of the district’s enrollment opted to attend in-person classes at that time.
Additionally, Owsley announced the district is eyeing implementing a five-day schedule starting Jan. 25 with an early dismissal each day.
“I will continue to be in close contact with the Macoupin County Health Department to monitor the positivity rate within our county,” Owsley concluded. “It is my hope that we’ll begin seeing a decrease in the positivity rate within our county and that the educational world can once again return to something that resembles normal.”
Before the board voted on returning to in-classroom learning, Michelle Smith, president of the teacher’s union spoke on behalf of the union, urging the board to approve the proposal. She also asked the board to set forth a clear plan and timeline for responding to the pandemic over the next several months, and to communicate with teachers, students and community members about future plans. The union opposed, she said, changing plans with no more than one business day’s notice.
Smith outlined four priorities upon which the union agreed moving forward—education, safety, consistency and planning. Smith said the union’s position is that students perform better when they are able to attend in-person classes with certified teachers and support staff. Additionally, due to the continuing pandemic, limited quantities of vaccine and the appearance of a new, more transmissible strain of the COVID virus, Smith said it is important to continue “certain safety guidelines set forth by the CDC, IDPH and Macoupin County health department” to reduce the risk of exposure among students and staff.
Regarding consistency and planning, Smith said the union encourages consistent communication with staff and students so that everyone knows what is expected of them and why. “Even though this past year has been anything but consistent, we feel, as educational leaders, (consistency) is extremely important in maintaining student engagement,” Smith said.
Thoughtful planning is needed, she said, so students, teachers, staff, administrators and members of the community have time to “plan and consider a straight path back to full in-person learning and back to our number one priority (education) to take its rightful place again.”
There were no comments from the public.
The next regular meeting of the board is set for Monday, Jan. 25.