District 202 latest school district to put the brakes on in-class learning

10/27/2020, 6 a.m.
Students across Will County and throughout Illinois have been kept out of their classrooms for various lengths of time since ...
As the COVID pandemic lingers on and more students are forced to continue learning from home, area school districts are finding innovative ways to provide instruction remotely. Thirty-five Dirksen Junior High School band students were treated to a visit on Zoom from Bluegrass Ambassadors program director Ben Wright who plays a banjo professionally. The musician shared with the students how he became a professional banjo player as an adult and started a bluegrass band. He also discussed the business of being a musician and all the places he has traveled through the American Music Abroad program. The Joliet Public Schools District 86 Band Director Laura Armstrong arranged the visit for her students.

Students across Will County and throughout Illinois have been kept out of their classrooms for various lengths of time since the Coronavirus pandemic hit in March. All of them shut down for the remainder of the last school year at the start of the pandemic.

The plan to return Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202 students to in-person learning will be delayed until further notice because of changing COVID-19 conditions, staffing challenges, and scheduling, district officials announced Monday.

About 300 multi-needs special education students returned to school on Oct. 26. About 100 multi-needs students opted to continue with remote learning.

They were the first group of students to return and will remain in in-person learning because they need direct attention and support more than other students.

However, Superintendent of Schools Lane Abrell told the Board of Education at its regular Monday meeting that the district will take an “adaptive pause” and not return other students until further notice.

Preschool and kindergarten students were scheduled to return on Nov. 5. District 202 started the school year Aug. 31 with remote learning for all District 202 students.

“We all understand the importance of having students in school for face-to-face instruction,” Abrell said. “It was wonderful seeing those students come back through our doors this morning.”

However, he said increasing COVID-19 cases, staffing issues, and scheduling challenges forced district leaders to reconsider its schedule for students to return to school in person.

Abrell said district administration will continue to monitor five key metrics over the next 10-14 days:

Positivity rate (5 consecutive data points flat or trending down of COVID-19 cases in Will County)

Guidance from IDPH, ISBE, and CDC as well as Kendall and Will County Health Departments

Cleaning and disinfecting supplies are readily available and able to be refilled in a timely manner

PPE supplies readily available and able to be refilled in a timely manner

Substitute pool is greater or equal to the number of substitutes needed for in person learning.

“We are looking at this situation as a community health issue, which is on the verge of overwhelming all of us,” Abrell said.

“No one wants the students back in school more than we do, but we need to make a balanced decision,” Abrell added. “The health and safety of our 26,000 students and 3,200 staff will always be our first priority.”

While a few districts faced only minor impacts as the new school year began earlier this fall, most continued to keep students at home as a result of the pandemic. The elevated concerns of it spreading like wildfire in the schools kept students learning remotely from home.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office, along with the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois School Board of Education moved quickly to put new guidelines in place for school districts to follow and adhere to in order to bring students back into the classrooms sooner rather than later.

The number of COVID cases within the region played a role in each individual school board’s decision to either continue full remote learning from home with students or slowly transitioning them back into the classrooms via a hybrid plan and then ramping that up slowly to full capacity as the COVID situation improved.

How fast or slow that happens depends on the individual district, the decision of each of the individual school boards and the ability to bring students back safely. Money can drive that last factor. For example, if a particular school does not have enough space to properly social distance students, they are likely not going to risk bringing them back into the classrooms until officials are confident the COVID numbers are at a safe level.

ISBE has given school districts autonomy to do what’s best for their individual districts and safest for their students. Pritzker’s office and the state have assisted financially by offering districts throughout Illinois funding to purchase more laptop computers. The goal was to bridge the digital divide for students in poorer districts so they could continue learning remotely from home should their district be unable to open right away.

"The State of Illinois has given full autonomy to the local districts to determine which instructional delivery model their respective district would utilize," said Will County Regional Office of Education Supt. Shawn Walsh. "Every superintendent within the region regularly discusses this decision with their board of education based on the needs of that school community. The Assistant Regional Superintendent and I facilitate weekly meetings with the local school district superintendents and the Will County Health Department."

The Regional Office of Education hosts network meetings for those districts who are in full remote, hybrid, and in-person instructional settings to share best practices. The ROE meets regularly with officials at the Illinois State Board of Education and provides any statewide updates to the local school districts.

"Nothing would make me happier than to see the end of this pandemic and have schools operate as they once did," Walsh said. "Until that time, my office is committed to assist the local districts in whatever instructional delivery model they choose."

It’s likely too early to tell how successful that plan has been or whether some students have fallen through the cracks.

The one certainty so far is each district is following the will of its administration and school board when it comes to re-opening plans. They appear to be all different, even when two different districts might be adjacent to each other.

For example, Joliet Public Schools District 86 officials announced recently that students will continue learning remotely from home until at least the middle of January, 2021.

Also, the Joliet Township High School District 204 Board approved a recommendation form Supt. Karla Guseman to continue remote learning until the end of the semester, which means like District 86, District 204 students would not return to in-class learning until the new year.

Meanwhile, just a short distance away in Romeoville and Bolingbrook, Valley View School District 365U officials had planned to have students transition to more in-person learning in a phased approach.

However, as COVID cases have continued to rise, District 365U Supt. Rachel Kinder on Wednesday announced a decision to enact a two-week pause in the district's timeline to bring Pre-Kindergarten through 5th grade hybrid program students back to school.  

Region 7, which includes Will County, and immediate community Zip Code data trends have recently emerged that show "concerning movement," Kinder said. "We need additional time to watch these metrics, have a firm understanding of the level of community transmission over a period of time, and reassess the plan to return larger populations of students. In this case, approximately 60 percent of the PK-5 student population (split into two groups for hybrid) are planning to return on site, in addition to staff.  

"We are at a critical point in planning for elementary transition to hybrid; pausing now would cause a lesser disruption to students and staff; pausing immediately after adjusting classes and during bridge week on-site will be extremely disruptive for students, families and staff."

At a recent District 86 Board of School Inspectors meeting, Supt. Theresa Rouse reviewed first trimester mid-point data with the school board, including parent/employee survey results and COVID-19 data in Region 7 (Will and Kankakee Counties), Will County, and individual zip code areas of Joliet. Based on the current positivity rates, new cases in Joliet and the current rise of cases among children, the board unanimously approved Rouse’s recommendation to keep District 86 students in fully remote learning until at least the middle of January.

“As much as we would all like to see students and staff back in our schools, as long as Coronavirus cases remain high, it is not safe.” said Rouse. “We will continue to review the data to see when transitioning small groups of students to schools makes sense.”

“Our main concern is to keep everyone safe and healthy,” said Board of School Inspectors President Tonya Roberts. “We can’t let our guard down.”

“All the data says that we are not ready to reopen.” Board of School Inspector Vice President Anthony Contos added.

“We know this decision is a hardship for many families,” Board of School Inspector Jeffrey Pritz said. “We appreciate everyone’s patience in this time of uncertainly.”

The District 365U Board, conversely, gave the administration approval to proceed with the transition to Stage 3 of the Return Together 365U plan during a recent meeting of the school board.

Stage 3 of the plan provides for the phased return of students to classrooms over the coming weeks and will result in a hybrid learning model of both in-school and remote instruction for most students.

“I want to commend all the VVSD staff members who collaborated to develop this plan,” said VVSD Board of Education President Steve Quigley.  “Planning the education of students during this pandemic and for contingencies that may arise is not easy.  Our preference, of course, is to have all students in classrooms with their teachers. However, these are the cards that we have been dealt and if we’ve learned anything during this challenge, it is that creativity, flexibility and adaptability set the foundation for success.” 

Earlier this month, VVSD welcomed the first groups of students back to classrooms as students in the Multi-Needs, Cross-Categorical, and Structured Teaching and Learning Room (STLR) programs returned to on-site instruction.

“We will continue the process of a phased transition to hybrid learning for those families that elected to have their student return on-site,” District 365U Supt.Rachel Kinder said.  “Building level communication will follow with additional details regarding the transition to hybrid and continuation of full remote prior to the start of a transition at a particular level.” 

In District 86, in addition to approving the continuation of remote learning, the school board voted to change Nov. 23rd from a student attendance day to a staff remote learning planning day. Students will not participate in remote learning on this day. Virtual parent/teacher conferences will take place that afternoon and early evening.

As for District 204, Guseman said the decision to continue remote learning until the end of the first semester was based on two factors: the increase in COVID-19 positivity rates for the region and county, and the disruption of learning that would occur with a mid-semester shift to the hybrid model of instruction. 

“The health and safety of our students and staff is at the forefront of all decision making as it relates to COVID-19,” Guseman said. “Unfortunately, we continue to see a rise in cases.  In late July, when the Board approved beginning the school year remotely, our region was at 5.7 percent, and when the Board approved the continuation of remote learning until November 10, our region was at 7.5 percent. Though our region previously experienced a decrease in positivity rates, we are now at 8.6 percent for the region and Will County is at 8.9 percent.  This trend, unfortunately, seems to continue in an upward direction.”