A year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced local schools to switch to remote learning, members of the Community Unit School District 7 Board of Education took several actions Monday night to start the long journey toward normalcy, including approval of the administration’s plan for reinstating in-classroom learning.
The board also posted vacancies for teaching positions for an expanded summer school program that will enable students struggling after months of remote learning to catch up, and approved an extensively revamped high school course description handbook that will detail distance learning opportunities that will be available starting with the 2021-22 school year via a consortium of area school districts.
On a motion by Jenni Alepra, seconded by Bill Carter, the board voted unanimously to approve the administration’s plan to return to in-classroom learning in compliance with new guidelines issued last week by the Illinois State Board of Education.
Supt. Shane Owsley read from a letter being sent to the parents of CUSD 7 students outlining the district’s plan for resuming in-person learning.
With a decrease in the number of COVID-19 cases and an increase in the number of residents being vaccinated against the virus, schools are being permitted to return to in-person learning. Districts are required, however, to provide remote instruction for students “who are at an increased risk of severe illness, who have special health care needs, or who live with people who are at increased risk of severe illness.”
The State Board of Education guidelines permit school districts to offer at their discretion remote learning for students who do not have health issues, and they require districts to provide sufficient time and support for families to transition their current remote learners to in-person learners.
CUSD 7 will continue to offer in-person and remote learning for the remainder of the current school year. However, the administrative team is “strongly” recommending that parents or guardians of students who are struggling with classes and/or grades, and who do not fall into a high risk category, to have their students return to in-person learning for the remainder of the fourth academic quarter.
“While remote learning can work, nothing will ever replace in-person learning,” Owsley said.
Barring an increase in COVID cases, the district will expect all students to attend in-person classes starting with the summer school program and the 2021-22 school year unless a student can provide medical documentation qualifying them for remote learning.
“As our COVID numbers decrease and the number of residents who have been vaccinated increase, it is our hope that our community and district can return to some semblance of normal,” Owsley said. “We will continue to follow the guidance of our local Health Department, Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education regarding safety protocols and procedures. We are not out of the woods yet but there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Board members also voted unanimously to post vacancies for summer school teaching positions for high school mathematics, high school English, high school science, high school social studies, high school physical education, middle school mathematics, middle school English and language arts, middle school science, middle school social studies, six elementary school teaching spots, and a summer school nurse.
The action paves the way for a dramatically expanded summer school program in anticipation of an expected influx of students needing to catch up in various subjects due to the unavoidable shortfalls of remote learning. In their administrative reports to the board, all three building principals noted that their staffs are currently identifying students they believe would benefit from attending summer school classes.
The board also posted vacancies for two summer school food service workers.
In another step toward normalcy, Owsley announced that recently revised IHSA guidelines now allow the school district to permit members of the public to attend athletic competitions in the high school gymnasium. The new guidelines limit attendance to 25 percent of the gym’s capacity. For the Gillespie High School gymnasium, that translates into a maximum of 187 spectators, according to Owsley. He said the district is reserving 50 spots for fans of visiting teams with the remaining seats available to supporters of the local team.
HIGH SCHOOL COURSE DESCRIPTION HANDBOOK
Following a lengthy presentation by High School Guidance Counselor Jill Strole, the board approved an extensively revamped high school course description handbook. The new handbook updates course offerings and includes material targeted at encouraging students to develop a four-year plan for courses they plan to take. Strole said the planning document is important because it encourages students to recognize courses for which prerequisites are required, as well as courses required for graduation and/or college admission. For example, a student planning to take an Advance Placement Government course as a senior will be required to take a Civics class earlier in their academic career.
“We’re trying to create a pathway for learning,” Strole said. “My hope is ninth-graders will think ahead because we have some really cool classes they may want to take” that require prerequisites.
In addition to listing graduation requirements to help students plan their academic careers, Strole said she also included transcript requirements demanded by some area colleges that vary from state-mandated graduation requirements.
The revised handbook also includes offerings that will be offered starting with the 2021-22 school year via a recently approved distance learning program. The program will allow local students to access Advance Placement courses offered by other schools that are part of a consortium of schools. Among the courses local students will be able to access are Macro Economics, Government, Child Care Certification and Speech. Gillespie High School will be able to offer courses to students in other participating schools in PhotoShop and Illustrator, Computer Coding and Gaming and advanced art courses.
“It’s really exciting,” Strole said.
Earlier in the meeting, Owsley reported that equipment to facilitate the distance learning program will be installed later this month.
Responding to a question, Strole said the distance learning options may require some adjustment to class schedules that are already in place for students returning to school next year.
Strole said the handbook will be familiar to most students. However, she said there will be significant changes in offerings from some departments, including art, English, science and business & graphic communication.
DATE, LOCATION SET FOR 2021 PROM
Board members voted unanimously to authorize the 2021 Junior-Senior Prom to be held from 7 to 11 p.m., Saturday, May 1, in the Gillespie High School gymnasium—effectively rejecting a proposal to hold the prom at an off-campus outdoor venue. The measure is made more significant by the fact that last year’s prom was canceled due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
In a brief presentation to the board, Prom Sponsor Andrea Williamson said the prom committee had secured a commitment from the Staunton Country Club to host the 2021 prom. She said the venue was chosen, in part, because the Country Club agreed to shut down all other operations during the prom, devoting the facility’s resources exclusively to the prom. Under that scenario, the prom would be held outdoors in consideration of social distancing protocols. In the event of inclement weather, she said a pavilion would be available for prom-goers to use. The facility’s restrooms are accessible from outside. The bar area would be locked and closed. As part of the agreement, the Country Club would provide food and beverages.
“I agree there should be a prom this year,” Board President Mark Hayes said after listening to the presentation, “but I think it should be held in the gym. I think you will have more control.”
“I’m totally fine with that,” Williamson said.
Responding to questions after the vote, Williamson and High School Principal Jill Rosentreter assured the board that accommodations would be made for parents of prom court members to attend the coronation of the prom queen and king. The number of people in the gymnasium at any one time will be limited to 187. Williamson said attendance at recent proms has averaged about 100 persons with a maximum of 120. Jennifer Brown said combined enrollment for this year’s junior and senior classes; if all eligible students attended and all of them brought dates from outside their classes, the total attendance would max out at 160.
In addition to students attending the prom, Rosentreter said their would be about 15 staff members attending as chaperones.
In the event the number of people attending precluded allowing prom court parents from entering the gym, Rosentreter said the coronation would be moved outside to allow parents to attend.
“We’re pretty flexible,” Rosentreter said.
The public will not be allowed to attend the traditional “promenade” as couples arrive for prom night. Instead, the walk-in will be live-streamed to Facebook and Youtube.
In separate actions, the board voted unanimously to re-employ 72 tenured certificated teachers and 12 non-tenured certificated teachers for the 2021-22 school year. The board also voted to re-employ Vanessa Barrett, elementary teacher, and Katie Prange, high school English teacher, for their fifth year and to place both on tenure for the upcoming school year.
In other personnel action, the board hired Jim Matesa as an assistant high school girls softball coach, and appointed Joe Kelly as a volunteer assistant high school girls softball coach.
Board members also accepted the resignation of Nikki Brawner as middle school girls track coach and posted the position as vacant.
The board accepted “with regret” the resignation of long-time district custodian Herman Crainick and posted the position as vacant.
On Owsley’s recommendation, the board voted to become a part of the NFHS Network, a sports streaming service partnered with the National Federal of High School Sports Association. Under the plan, NFHS will install two Pixellot cameras—one in the high school gym and one at the high school football field. The cameras are motion activated and programed to follow the action of sporting events up and down the court or on the field.
Owsley said school staffers have live-streamed recent sporting events on Facebook and Youtube to permit fans and supporters to watch games while being precluded from in-person attendance because of COVID protocols. The NFHS system will require a $10 per month subscription fee for supporters to view, but Owsley said the quality of the livestream should be better and the subscription will give subscribers access to games played by other high school teams that are members of the network. Both Staunton High School and Carlinville High School are among area schools that are already part of the network.
The equipment will be installed free of charge to the district. Proceeds from subscription fees will be used to pay for the equipment over the first four years of the program. Starting with the fifth year, Owsley said the district will be entitled to receive a share of subscription fees paid by local viewers.
In addition, the district can generate revenue via advertising sales on the live-stream. That option, Owsley said, could dovetail with the school district’s marketing classes, thereby providing learning experience for students. He said the school also can initiate play-by-play commentary over the live-streamed video.
While ultimately voting for the measure, Carter worried about residents, especially older residents, who “just now figured out how to use Facebook and now will have to pay for a subscription.”
Board member Were Schmidt, however, pointed out the subscription fee is comparable to what an individual would pay for admission to attend games in person.
In other action, the board approved a schedule for regular meeting dates for the current calendar year calling for the board to meet in closed session at 6 p.m. on the fourth Monday of each month with an open session beginning at 7 p.m.