Members of the Community Unit School District 7 Board of Education voted 6-1 during a special meeting of the board Wednesday night to reopen district schools for a hybrid attendance plan starting on Monday, Oct. 5.
Upward of 20 community members, several of whom had been vocal advocates for returning students to the classroom, attended the meeting. There were no public comments prior to the board’s action, though Board President Mark Hayes read the board’s policy on hearing public comments shortly after he convened the open session portion of the meeting. The board met in executive session for about 90 minutes before returning to open session to vote on two personnel matters and the in-person learning issue. The open session was convened and adjourned in about 10 minutes.
Board member Weye Schmidt moved to transition from remote learning to a hybrid learning program, with a second by Bill Carter. Board members Schmit, Hayes, Carter, Becky Hatlee, Jenni Alepra and Don Dobrino all voted in favor of the measure. Dennis Tiburzi, citing continuing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, cast the sole dissenting vote.
The school district’s decision to offer remote learning only when the school year resumed on Aug. 11 has been the focus of controversy for the past months. Two weeks prior to Wednesday night’s meeting, the board voted to stay the course with remote learning despite pleas from five parents who addressed that session of the board to advocate for a hybrid attendance plan. Board President Hayes had previously told parents the board would revisit the issue at the end of the academic quarter which concludes Oct. 18. Wednesday night’s decision departs from that original timeline by about two weeks.
Reading from a prepared statement prior to the vote, Supt. Shane Owsley said he asked the board to take formal action to move from remote learning to the hybrid learning plan starting on Oct. 5, which will give parents time to confirm daycare arrangements if needed and help their children acclimate themselves to wearing face masks for extended periods. He noted that formal action by the board was not a requirement. The board previously approved a resolution giving the superintendent authority to set policy regarding school attendance during the pandemic without seeking prior board approval.
“During our period of Remote Learning I’ve heard parents who are struggling to educate their students and I’ve also heard from those who feel Remote Learning is doing amazing things for their child,” Owsley read. “Our goal has been and will always be to serve all our students.”
Under the hybrid plan, parents may opt to send their children to school for in-classroom learning or keep them home to continue remote learning. An informal survey of parents conducted earlier this year indicated that as many as half the district’s parents preferred to keep their children at home during the health crisis. Under the hybrid plan, students attending classes in person will be in the classroom on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Wednesday will be a non-attendance day to allow for cleaning and sanitation of school facilities and buses, although the buildings will be open to allow for individual students to consult with teachers one-on-one. High school and middle school students will be dismissed at 1 p..m., and elementary students will be dismissed at 2 p.m. while the hybrid learning plan is in place.
“I would also like to caution all students and parents that the ‘school’ that they will be returning to will look very different than the one they left,” Owsley said. Hallways will be limited to one-way traffic only. Students, staff and visitors will be required to wear masks while inside the school building, while on buses and at other times when social distancing is not possible. With the resumption of in-classroom learning, Owsley said sports programs and extra-curricular activities will resume in accordance with guidelines issued by the Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinois High School Association.
“Teachers will be charged with the difficult task of teaching those who are in-person and those who choose to continue to learn remotely,” Owsley said. “The Administrative Team and the Board of Education understand what a monumental task this will be. We have absolutely no doubts we have the right people in place to make this happen.”
Owsley said he wanted to make it clear to the community that parents and students should be prepared to return to remote learning “at a moment’s notice” if conditions warrant. An outbreak of COVID-19 cases, a high percentage of students and/or staff having to be quarantined, or simply not having enough substitute teachers to staff classes could trigger a return to remote learning.
Relying on IDPH guidelines, Owsley said students who are ill or exhibit symptoms associated with COVID-19 will be sent home, along with any student who resides with that student. Students may not return to school until symptoms improve and they have had a negative COVID test or an alternate diagnosis from a doctor. Students who have been in contact with a person testing positive must self-quarantine for 14 days before returning to school.
“COVID-19 is going to be an ongoing issue for all school districts in our country,” Owsley noted. “I want to thank everyone for their concerns, well-wishes, and suggestions as we navigate through this issue together. The safety or our students, staff, and community members will continue to be our focus.”
Addressing the recent controversy and public outcry, Owsley reiterated the district started the year with remote learning “because it’s the safest method of learning for our students, staff, and community members.”
After the vote, Owsley announced that information packets will be available to parents starting Sept. 30. Those packets will include the IDPH Exclusion chart, information from building nurses, information about the self-certification process, what a normal day for in-person and remote learning will look like, safety protocols and guidelines that will be followed, an expectation chart for students/parents/staff, protocol for returning to remote learning if needed, and a frequently asked questions section.
Following the vote, Amanda Yeager, who read an extensive statement two weeks ago criticizing the decision to continue with remote learning, thanked the board for its action. Jerry Reid, another parent, told the board he appreciated the opportunity to have a choice for how his children will attend classes. He said he had one child who did very well with remote learning and another who struggled with learning remotely.
In other action, the board voted unanimously to accept the retirement of paraprofessional Sharon Heyen, effective Oct. 1, and to post the position as vacant.
The board also voted unanimously to hire Amanda Manley as a three-hour per day cafeteria worker.