Members of the Community Unit School District 7 Board of Education, once again meeting remotely on Monday night, hired a new Title I Reading Specialist and accepted the retirement of the district’s long-serving Transportation Director but the majority of the discussion focused on the school district’s response to current school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility that may have to continue with remote teaching programs when the 2020-21 school year gets underway.
Due to COVID-19 precautions, board members participated in the meeting via the Zoom internet meeting platform.
After meeting in executive session for about one hour to discuss personnel and other issues, the board voted in open session to hire Dana Tieman as a Title I reading specialist, and accepted “with regrets” the retirement notice of Gary Niehaus as the district Transportation Director, effective July 1, 2021. Niehaus has been Transportation Director for the past 18 years.
“Gary will be a very missed employee,” Board President Mark Hayes said. “He works a lot of long hours, especially in winter when he and Mr. (Joe) Tieman are out there checking roads to see if school will be in session.”
In other personnel action, the board approved maternity to leave for Kenna West, BenGil Elementary speech pathologist; accepted the resignation, effective immediately, of Gina Frensko as Gillespie High School cheer coach and posted the position as vacant; and accepted the resignation of volunteer high school cheer coach Kylee Dickinson.
Though no formal action was taken, building administrators and Supt. Joe Tieman updated the board on how the district has been responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced schools to close throughout Illinois, and laid the groundwork for what teachers, students and the community might expect next year. All three principals told the board that staff members were in the process of collecting students’ personal belongings in anticipation of returning them to students when the year’s final learning packets are distributed on Friday.
Additionally, High School Principal Shane Owsley said he has been working with Jostens, the Minneapolis company that sells class rings and graduation memorabilia, to provide a “virtual graduation” for GHS seniors this year. The Jostens template will allow students to upload their photo, along with a quote and well-wishes from relatives.
Owsley said the school still hopes to have an in-person graduation ceremony in July if the stay-at-home order has been lifted by then. In the meantime, he said the school wanted to provide an opportunity for a virtual commencement option. He also reported that an anonymous donor “who doesn’t want the Class of 2020 to be forgotten” has agreed to pay for a professional photographer to schedule sessions for graduates to be photographed under the archway in front of the school building in their caps and gowns. Those photos will be taken while observing social distancing precautions and prints will be provided to the graduates free of charge.
Owsley also reported he and Mark Carpani, Technology Coordinator, are working on a virtual awards night to recognize scholarship and award recipients.
Likewise, Middle School Principal Jill Rosentreter said her staff is working on a virtual eighth-grade promotion ceremony that will be accessible online.
Rosentreter said she has been having Zoom meetings with the teaching staff about the challenges of offering educational opportunities during the pandemic.
“I can’t say enough about the Middle School staff,” she said. “While they weren’t fully prepared for electronic instruction, they’ve stepped up to the plate and have experimented and tried new things. We have nearly every Middle School teacher instructing online at this point.”
According to Rosentreter, she and the Middle School teaching staff are bracing for the possibility that online instruction may continue to be the “new normal” for educators when classes resume after the summer break. “The unknown is what things are going to look like in the fall,” she said. “We’re trying to be proactive in the event the pandemic continues or re-emerges in the fall.”
Supt. Tieman also addressed the possibility of continuing challenges for the 2020-21 school year, notifying the board that the district is expected to receive $393,000 in federal Title I funds to promote remote learning. “We haven’t seen the money yet, so we can’t be spending it,” he said, ‘but we’ve been told it’s coming.”
Currently, BenGil Elementary School is the only Title I school in the district and under normal circumstances Title I funds could only be spent within that facility. Tieman said he hopes the remote learning program, however, will be flexible enough to allow the board to expend those funds to benefit the entire district. The funds could be used in a variety of ways, including buying computers to students who do not have access to computer technology.
“We may have to start the year with remote learning,” Tieman said, or the district may have to revert to remote learning if the pandemic spikes again later in the fall.
Tieman reported the district has received a $19,000 After School grant that also may be used to foster remote learning.
Among the issues the district faces is the number of students who either do not have access to computers or do not have access to the internet.
“I think we need to figure out now how we’re going to distribute information,” said Weye Schmidt, recalling a recent conversation with a co-worker about remote learning in other districts. “I know the Chromebooks are a lot cheaper but they may not do what we need them to do.”
He offered an option whereby teachers would come into their classrooms and record lessons to be distributed online to students. Another option would be to provide students with computers pre-loaded with instructional lessons to reach students without internet access.
Hayes suggested the board may have to consider a computer rental fee instead of textbook rentals, possibly allowing students to rent a computer through all four years of high school after which the computer would be given to the student.
“I think this is the way we’re going to have to go,” Schmidt said. “It’s in the best interest of our kids. I think this is going to go on past the end of this month.”
Moments after the discussion, the board took action to approve a school calendar for the 2020-21 school year, but Tieman said the action could be moot. The new calendar calls for the first day of classes on Aug. 13 but Tieman said there are rumblings the state government may order schools to delay opening until after Labor Day. Approving the calendar is somewhat of a formality, he said, and school boards are authorized to amend the calendar as circumstances require
VOCATIONAL BUILDING IMPROVEMENTS
While project bids are not expected until next month, board members spent several minutes discussing proposed improvements to the Gillespie High School vocational facility. Earlier, the board authorized the school architect to prepare specifications and seek bids for three options:
- Replace the roof on the current vocational building;
- Replace the roof and expand the vocational building by 30 feet; and
- Replace the roof and expand the building by 48 feet. Tieman noted that the third option would require moving the current greenhouse and that the cost of a new greenhouse will be included in the bid.
Tieman said the school has received a $399,000 state grant that can be used to fund the project, along with a $50,000 matching grant for school maintenance.
“Essentially we can get a $500,000 project when we’re only spending $50,000,” he said.
If the board receives favorable bids, the project could be awarded next month with an eye toward completing the project by Aug. 10.
If bids come in higher than anticipated, Tieman cautioned against dipping into the district’s School Facilities Sales Tax fund to make up the difference. While the fund has been receiving healthy injections of cash, declining retail sales as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic business closures could reduce the amount of money the district sees from retail sales tax next year.
EARLY GRADUATION REQUESTS
By a unanimous vote, the board approved early graduation requests from seven Gillespie High School juniors who will be seniors next year. Supt. Tieman said students request early graduation for a variety of reasons including personal reasons, entry into college or entry into military service. “I can’t think of a time when we didn’t approve them,” he said. Students for whom early graduation was approved include Dominic DeMartini, Braelyn Johnson, Isabelle Cloud, Tyler Watters, Malaya Beavin, Treanna Dowdy and Zoe Tormino. All seven will graduate at the end of December.
On a motion by Schmidt, seconded by Carter, the board approved job descriptions for district personnel. Tieman said the descriptions had been reviewed by union representatives and were required by law to be approved by May 10. He said the descriptions are significant since they would be the basis for a reduction in force (RIF) if lay-offs should become necessary next year.