Several parents of Community Unit School District 7 left disappointed after the Board of Education declined to take action on reversing or reaffirming the district’s remote learning plan currently in place during a special meeting of the board on Wednesday night.
Five mothers of CUSD 7 students urged the board to reopen the district for in-person learning during the public comment portion of the meeting. Among other issues, the speakers noted that remote learning is not as effective as in-person attendance and continued isolation from classmates may adversely affect students emotionally and mentally.
Those speaking apparently expected the board to take an up or down vote on the issue. Instead, board members offered no motion on the question and Supt. Shane Owsley read a prepared statement reiterating the district’s intention to continue with remote learning at least through early October. His reading of the statement was met with shouts of “You’re hurting the children” as board members moved to adjourn the meeting.
The board met in the Gillespie Middle School cafeteria to allow room for social distancing. The school’s resource police officer was on hand to take temperatures of those entering the room, and he remained on the premises during the meeting. Board members Don Dobrino, Jenni Alepra, Mark Hayes and Weye Schmidt attended the meeting in person; Becky Hatlee and Bill Carter participated remotely via the internet.
Reading from a prepared statement, Owsley said the district’s decision to continue with remote learning was driven by concerns for the safety of students, staff and community members. Even with the school closed to in-person learning, he said, the number of COVID-19 cases in the district doubled from 43 cases on Aug. 11 when the school year started to 86 as of Sept. 6.
“While remote learning is not perfect, it is consistent,” Owsley said. “The Board of Education and the Administrative team believe the consistency provided by remote learning is far more effective than an in-person plan where students will be brought into school and pulled out of school on a regular basis.”
The consistency provided by the current plan, he noted, also facilitates families arranging for daycare for their children.
“The district fully understands that COVID-19 will be an ongoing concern for the remainder of the school year,” Owsley said. “The district also fully understands that students will need to return to in-person learning at some point during the year. The Board of Education and Administrative team would like to see a ‘leveling off’ or a decrease in positive cases within our district’ before resuming in-person learning.
Departing from the prepared statement, Owsley assured parents that sports programs, a major concern of those speaking Wednesday night, would resume immediately upon the district returning to in-person learning.
Additionally, he said, the district will continue to offer remote learning for parents who want that option when in-person classes resume. He warned, however, that the remote learning experience after classroom learning resumes will not match what students and parents are accustomed to while remote learning is the only option available. Teachers will be expected to teach classroom students during the day and offer online instruction at the end of the school day.
When a decision is made to return to in-person learning, according to information provided to persons attending the meeting, students will attend school Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. High school and middle school students will be dismissed at 1 p.m., and elementary students will be dismissed at 2 p.m. Wednesday will be used as a day for cleaning and sanitizing school facilities, including buses. Teachers will be available for remote learning opportunities on Wednesdays.
The board met in executive session for about 90 minutes before coming into open session to hear concerns from parents. Board members spent about 30 minutes listening to the concerns of parents.
Jennifer Hailstone and Keri Kaylor, both of whom addressed the board at its previous meeting regarding the same issue, reiterated their objections to the remote learning plan and asked pointed questions of both the board and Owsley. Both women were dismayed that the agenda called for them to offer their comments before the board announced its decision.
Hailstone said her comments at the previous board meeting were not intended to create division.
“I am, however, passionate about education opportunities for our children,” she said. “That’s why I’m pushing for choice.” The remote learning plan does not provide adequate education and continuing to rely on remote learning is having an adverse effect on students, according to Hailstone. “It’s very concerning, very heartbreaking,” she said. “There are kids out there suffering from depression and suffering from anxiety.”
Hailstone asked if the district had appointed an advisory task force comprised of board members, administrators, teachers, parents and students, as she had recommended during her previous appearance before the board. Owsley responded that no such task force had been created but said a team made up of administrators, teachers and County Health Department personnel were continuing to evaluate information to guide the district in regard to reopening plans. No students were involved, he said. Parents were indirectly involved by virtue of an informal online survey.
Results of that survey, made available to persons attending Wednesday night’s meeting, showed parents to be evenly divided between those who prefer in-person instruction and those who would opt for remote learning. With more than 900 parents responding, slightly less than three out of five said they would be comfortable with sending their children back to school for in-person instruction.
Hailstone also pressed Owsley for a definite number of cases in the district below which the district would feel comfortable with reopening school. Based on Macoupin County Public Health Department recommendations, Owsley said, the district is looking for a declining number of cases or a leveling off of new cases. “As far as saying there is a magic number where it is safe and a number that’s not, we can’t do that,” he said.
Hailstone said the Illinois Department of Public Health issued guidelines saying it would be relatively safe to reopen schools in communities where the rate of infection is below eight percent of the population. The infection rate in CUSD 7 was below eight percent on Aug. 11 when school resumed, she said. Even though the number of positive cases has doubled since that time, the number of cases in the district remains below eight percent of the population.
While district officials said they would monitor the success of other districts reopening for in-person learning, Hailstone complained that CUSD 7 remains closed while “other districts are doing very well.”
Asked specifically about fall sports programs, Owsley confirmed that all sports programs would be immediately re-implemented as soon as students return to the classroom. He defended the district’s decision to make contact with a privately organized seventh-grade baseball team to ensure the team was not playing as a school team.
Kaylor reported to the board that her son, a senior, received a computer and only one textbook to start the school year even though parents are paying textbook rental fees equivalent to previous years. Owsley said teachers are providing classroom materials, including textbook chapters, on the Chromebooks issued to students at the beginning of the year.
She also asked about the number of minutes online teachers spend with students per class. High School Principal Jill Rosentreter replied that the amount of time spent on online learning varied from about twelve minutes to 30 minutes.
“To keep a student’s attention online for 60 minutes times four is not recommended,” Rosentreter said.
Owsley said the district also has concerns about keeping enough substitute teachers available. Under current provisions, a teacher that arrives with symptoms, such as a runny nose, must be sent home. Having multiple teachers out of the classroom could create challenges in making sure classes have instructors present, Owsley said.
Owsley declined to answer when Kaylor pointedly asked if he would feel comfortable sending his own children back to the classroom at this time. But five of the six board members said they would not want to send their children to school for classroom learning under the current circumstances.
Kaylor then alleged area youths would be no more at risk for contracting COVID-19 if they were in the classroom than they are now.
“Kids are out and about now. I don’t see that being in school is any more dangerous,” she said. “They need to be in school. I’m very, very concerned that our kids are going to be so far behind students from other districts.”
Amanda Yeager, a mother of four elementary school-age children, presented upward of 40 pages of supporting documents with her statement to the board calling for the district to reopen for in-person learning.
“This board has the responsibility to take proper precautions for safety and make sure our children are properly taught, and in-person learning is proven to be the best for our children,” Yeager said. “I and others feel you need to do your job as elected officials or resign.”
Yeager used data from Niche.com, a school and community assessment site, to draw a correlation between administrative scores and whether or not schools have reopened for in-person learning. Carlinville, Staunton, Mount Olive, and Bunker Hill, whose administrations are graded at B- or better, are open with hybrid in-person/remote learning programs. Gillespie with an administrative grade of D is open for remote learning only.
“I believe you can see a pattern here with administrative grades,” she said.
Yeager said students reliant on remote-learning only maybe as much as a year behind other students in academic development, and that reopening schools for in-person learning is critical for students’ mental and physical well-being.
She noted that the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Macoupin County represents less than one percent of the county’s population and that schools that have reopened for in-person learning have reported no problems.
In addition to her statement to the board, Yeager submitted a Freedom of Information request for all correspondence and discussion related to the board’s decision to reopen exclusively with remote learning.
One mother attributed her freshman daughter’s anorexia and depression to the lack of in-person learning. She said her daughter currently is working with a counselor and nutritionist after dropping nearly 30 pounds since last spring. Hillsboro and other surrounding school districts are using classroom learning with no problems, she said.
“They’re still going,” she said. “They may have a few cases, but they’re still going. Please consider sending them back to school for the health of our children.”
Owsley pledged to reach out to the mother of a special needs student after she said she had been unable to get special services for her son. She said both she and her husband work full time and do not have the time or ability to provide in-home services for her son.
“I do not have the knowledge or the ability to teach a special needs child,” she said. “I’m asking for help.”
“This is the first I’ve heard of this,” Owsley told the woman. “Obviously our goal is to serve all of our students. I will give you a call tomorrow.”
Faculty member Casey Sholtis, speaking on behalf of the teachers union, offered praise for the district’s Technology Department for working to resolve problems and make it possible for teachers to offer remote learning experiences for CUSD 7 students.
As board members voted to adjourn, Yeager demanded to be allowed to speak.
“You’re not doing anything for these kids,” she insisted. “I have one more statement to make. You’re not going to listen.”