Members of the Community Unit School District 7 Board of Education voted on Monday night to formally place the 2020-2021 district budget on file for public review but a major portion of the meeting was devoted to responding to parental concerns about opening the school year with a remote learning format and the suspension of sports programs in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
After meeting in person for the past two months, the board returned to conducting its meeting Monday night via the Zoom internet platform. More than 20 spectators accessed the meeting, three of whom addressed the board with concerns about remote learning protocols and/or the lack of sports programs.
Reading from a prepared statement, Jennifer Hailstone, parent of two local students, asked the board to appoint a task force comprised of administrators, teachers, parents and students to consider plans for returning to a classroom format or continuing remote learning. Additionally, she called for the district to reinstate those sports programs the Illinois High School Association and Illinois Elementary School Association have deemed reasonably safe for student participation.
Pointing out that one board member is employed by the Macoupin County Public Health Department and two members have family members employed by MCPHD, Hailstone alleged the board was unduly influenced by MCPHD in becoming the only school district in the county to chose remote learning exclusively over classroom learning for the 2020-21 school year opening.
“During these unprecedented times, I understand the superintendent and the board felt they made their decisions based on what they believed was safest for our students and staff. While I appreciate the concern, I feel some decisions were premature and left little to no room for parent choice,” Hailstone read from her statement. “As I respect the work and dedication of the Macoupin County Public Health Department (MCPHD), I feel the overwhelming influence (board member and family members) makes it difficult for our school board to make unbiased decisions. Why is no other school in the county heeding their advice?”
Hailstone expressed special concern over the suspension of sports programs.
“In a time where underlining physical conditions are a contributing factor in the harmful effects of COVID-19, why are we limiting opportunities for exercise and sunshine that are safe according to the IDPH and the Governor’s Office?” she asked. “I feel that it is up to each individual to make an informed decision for his or her child. Sports are not mandatory. If a parent does not want his/her child to participate, they do not have to. The physical and mental benefits of playing sports attribute to academic success.”
Hailstone further alleged a “lack of transparency” on the part of the board regarding the decision to use remote learning and suspend extra-curricular activities. She said she and Kerri Kaylor, who also spoke Monday night, were unable to get firm answers from MCPHD, administrators or board members regarding how officials determine whether the infection rate within the district is improving or getting worse. Moreover, she said most board members and administrators would tell her when she asked about how the decisions were made was that the issues were “discussed.”
In bulleted points, Hailstone alleged the decision to reopen school exclusively with remote learning was implemented without a board vote. She asked who devised the remotely learning plan and whether or not students and teachers were involved in those discussions. Further, she pointed out that in the last three days of July, both IHSA and IESA issued statements deeming some sports—such as golf, softball and cross-country—to be safe for student participation whether or not a school is exercising remote learning protocols.
“All I’m asking is that you give our parents and students the same choices as surrounding districts,” Hailstone said.
Board President Mark Hayes said the board concurred with the decision to open with remote learning which announced by Supt. Shane Owsley during a special meeting on July 20. Because the issue was not previously on the agenda, the board was precluded from voting that night but unanimously approved a resolution the following week giving the superintendent authority to implement protocols as necessary in response to the pandemic.
“I greatly appreciate your concerns,” Hayes said. “It wasn’t just Mr. Owsley’s decision; it was also the board and the faculty. Our board has decided to error on the side of caution. The plan is to be re-evaluated at the midterm.”
Joining Hailstone, Kerry Kaylor criticized the administration for being “unprepared” for the start of the school year. She said a number of families did not receive registration packets prior to the first day of school on Monday, Aug. 17, and were therefore uninformed about procedures for picking up computer devices, materials and assignments. She also criticized a lack of instruction during the first week of school. “I feel we are falling farther and farther behind,” she said.
Supt. Owsley said all packets were in the mail no later than last Monday, a full week before the start of school. He suggested some parents may not have received packets in a timely fashion because of issues with the Postal Service. Later in the meeting, High School Principal Jill Rosentreter said she is viewing the first week as a week for acclimating students and teachers to working under remote learning protocols. One of the concerns involves ensuring students are properly included in Microsoft Teams, which are the equivalent of a virtual classroom, and ensuring that all students have some opportunity for internet access.
“This first week is all about preparing our students to use their devices,” Rosentreter said. “We’re going slow and making sure all our students are set up properly in Microsoft Teams.”
Kaylor had pointed remarks for board member Jenni Alepra, whom she said failed to respond to an email she sent to board members seeking answers to her questions and concerns about the remote learning strategy. She said she reached out to Alepra, Don Dobrino and Becky Hatlee and received no response from any of the three. Dobrino was absent from Monday night’s meeting. Hatlee said she either missed the email or did not receive it and promised to check her inbox after the meeting.
Alepra thanked Kaylor was participating in Monday night’s meeting but said she does not respond to board-related inquiries when she is not at a board meeting. “When I’m not at a board meeting, I’m not a board member,” Alepra said. “I have a full-time job and a household to run.” She added that is the policy she has practiced in 20 years of service on the board.
“How is the public supposed to address you then?” Kaylor asked.
“The chain of command is the teacher, the principal, the superintendent and then the board,” Alepra advised. “You’re in the right place to address the board. Our meetings are open to the public, so there are lots of opportunities to address the board.”
“I think that’s very poor on the part of an elected official,” Kaylor commented.
Kerry Frensko also addressed board regarding her concerns regarding a lack of instruction on Wednesdays. Owsley responded, saying Wednesdays have been set aside for cleaning and sanitation when students are allowed to return for classroom instruction. In the meantime, teachers will remain in contact with students and parents on Wednesdays to respond to inquiries. “That cleaning day is more related to the four-day schedule when we return,” he said.
Reading from a prepared statement, President Hayes responded to concerns about the sports program suspension as follows: “Members of the CUSD #7 Board of Education and the Administrative team have and always will look out for the safety of our students and staff. This has been our priority during the decision-making process and will continue to be. District leadership has determined that it is not safe enough for students to return to in-person instruction. It has also been determined that if it is not safe enough for our students to return to the classrooms it is also not safe enough for them to return to the diamond, field, or course. We fully understand the importance of extra-curricular activities to the educational process but also realize these are supplemental activities, not primary events. We look forward to the day where all our students can return to their classrooms; furthermore, we also look forward to watching our Indians and Miners re-take the course, diamond, court, and field. Unfortunately, now is not the time for either of these things to take place. District Leadership will continue to monitor the COVID numbers in Macoupin County and will reassess the situation on a continuous basis.
Board members briefly heard from building administrators about the first day of school, which basically was devoted to distributing materials for remote learning and distributing computers to grades 4-12. It was also noted that Andrew Easton, a former student who now specializes in training teachers for remote learning, came to the district to offer a training session prior to the start of the school year.
“I’m proud of our school district and I’m proud of our community,” Hayes commented. “We’ve been through a lot together. I know we have not made everyone happy at times.” He said the board, administrators and faculty always seek to act in the best interest of students. He credited administrators, teachers and community members for rising to the challenge during the pandemic. “You are all amazing,” he said.
In a somewhat related matter, the board approved on Owsley’s recommendation a technology policy regarding computer use by students. Owsely said the revised policy was needed because the district is moving toward becoming a “1:1 school district,” meaning the district will soon be able to provide computers and ensure internet access for all students.
Board members voted unanimously to place a draft budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year on file for public review for 30 days. Owsley said he would provide a detailed review of the budget when the board meets on Monday, Sept. 28, for its regular meeting. The board will conduct a public hearing on the budget on Sept. 28 before it is presented for final adoption by the board.
The proposed budget is available for public review at the district’s administrative office. Persons wishing to review the document will be required to wear a face-covering and practice social distancing while at the office.
This budget will be the first to be prepared under Owsley’s administration.
VOCATIONAL BUILDING EXPANSION
Without taking a formal vote, the board agreed to direct Grahm-Hyde Architects of Springfield to proceed with the base bid provided by Boeker Construction for replacing the roof and adding a 30-foot addition to the existing Vocational Education Building. Boeker proposed executing the project at a cost of $529,000—$450,000 of which will be underwritten with grant funds. An alternate bid to expand the building by 48 feet would have cost another $260,000.
“I think with the uncertainty we are facing in terms of funding,” Hayes commented, “we should stick with the base bid.” He noted the state has advised school districts to expect the same level of state funding as they were awarded last year.
E-LEARNING PROGRAM VERIFICATION
The board also authorized Owsley to apply for state verification for the district’s E-learning (remote learning) plans, which would allow the district to use E-learning days in lieu of emergency days such as “snow” days and other emergencies. Essentially, students would continue their education remotely on days when inclement weather or other emergencies force the school to cancel classroom attendance.
“We have the devices so it’s essentially what we are doing now,” Owsley said.
The plan will require a local public hearing which will be set at a later date.
The board accepted the resignation of Nancy Konneker as a cafeteria worker and posted the position as vacant, and appointed Casey Edgerton as the high school yearbook sponsor.
The board deferred action on hiring a seventh-grade volleyball coach, a high school assistant volleyball coach and a high school assistant softball coach.
“We realize those positions will have to be filled at some point but with the pandemic, we are going to forego filling them at this time,” Hayes said.