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District 91 announced its plans for fall reopening last week, plans that include all-day masked instruction for students with many safety protocols in place. However, some teachers feel trepidation about the new plan, and although Superintendent Lou Cavallo said the teachers were consulted prior to and while developing the plan, Forest Park Teachers’ Association (FPTA) President Susan Bogdan contradicts that assertion.

The reopening plans, announced and discussed during a question and answer session for parents during a July 9 school board meeting, may change, as Cavallo said he is meeting with the FPTA on July 14 to discuss the situation.

According to Bogdan in an email, “The teacher’s union did not have a role in the plan to reopen.” She said some teachers were involved in the Learning Loss Committee (LLC), a group that includes teacher representatives from all age groups and from the special education department. The group, led by James Edler, director of innovative instruction, began meeting before school was out in the spring to prepare for the district’s virtual summer school program, and the group continues to meet to plan for the possibility of a return to distance learning in the fall. However, said Bogdan, “the LLC did not discuss any part of the plan to return to school in person.”

Bogdan said that when Cavallo shared the reopening plan with her, she shared it with staff to receive feedback, then met again with Cavallo to discuss concerns, suggestions and questions from staff. At that time, she got clarification on some points in the plan and shared with Cavallo concerns staff had about reopening.

Some changes were made, but the plan presented by Cavallo last week leaves many teachers worried. Bogdan said the FPTA is concerned about several things, including the practicality of the plan and how to maintain social distancing. Teaching and learning in a mask for seven hours a day is problematic. Limited movement for the students is worrisome, as is the cleanliness of the buildings and ventilation systems.

Bogdan said teachers are concerned about being exposed to multiple groups of students each day, since teachers will move from classroom to classroom to teach students different subjects. And if teachers do get sick and are required to quarantine, whether quarantine days will be counted as sick days is an unanswered question as is a lack of substitute teachers to cover classes. Meeting the needs of students with special needs is another concern the teachers have.

Put simply, “There is a concern that students and staff will get sick,” said Bogdan.

Bogdan said the teachers would prefer a hybrid or half day option to at least be explored and considered. For teachers and staff that are immunocompromised or have health conditions that make it more complicated to come to work, an option for some teachers to work from home and provide a virtual option for families would be ideal.

“Our teachers are looking for the district to incorporate the more flexible options from the ISBE guidelines in order to best serve all students.

“We recognize the value of in-person instruction but are concerned with the risks that come with it,” Bogdan said. “Creating a model that limits the number of students at one time or decreases the amount of time spent in person makes the majority of our teachers feel more comfortable.”

At Thursday’s school board meeting to discuss the reopening and address questions, Cavallo said in no uncertain terms that the current plan does not have an option for online learning, except for instances when a health problem requires the student to stay home for an extended period of time. In those cases, a doctor’s note is required, and the school will make arrangements for at-home learning. The general student population, however, will be required to return to in-person school.

Cavallo said that ISBE recommends all schools that can open for in-person learning should, and D91’s low enrollment and excess of space lends itself well to such a plan. And Cavallo said, in an email, that the teachers were consulted in planning the reopening.

“After putting all the components of the plan from [Illinois Department of Public Health] together, before it was finalized and released anywhere, it was shared with the president of the teachers’ union and we discussed it at length,” said Cavallo. “We then shared the draft with ALL teachers in the district for input. I then met with the president of the teachers’ union for several hours to go over the 15 pages of input and make changes to the plan based on that input.”

Cavallo said he would be meeting with the union again on July 14, and more changes might be made.

The ISBE recommends that school districts survey families in planning for the start of the school year, something D91 did not do. According to the state board’s official reopening guidelines, “the ISBE recommends collecting information from students and families via an intake survey/needs assessment to help guide school and district planning and to connect students and families with resources in advance of the start of the school year.”

When asked why parents weren’t surveyed, Cavallo said, “The IDPH/ISBE Guidelines clearly outline what school in Phase IV of the Restore Illinois Plan will look like.” He added that some communities surveyed parents because the districts were unable to meet reopening guidelines due to space and enrollment concerns; in such cases, hybrid options were developed to keep students socially distant.

D91, however, has “both the room and lower enrollment necessary to meet the guidelines,” said Cavallo. “All districts that can open for in-person instruction were advised to open.”

As the official ISBE guidelines state, “Schools and districts are encouraged to provide completely in-person instruction for all students in Phase 4, provided that the school is able to comply with capacity limits and implement social distancing measures.”

But some parents wish they’d been surveyed about the best way to go about reopening schools in the fall. D91 parent Libby Ashcroft said, “I’m disappointed that we were not surveyed. It is going to take the entire community for this to be successful, and all of the stake holders should have had an opportunity for input.”

Cavallo also cited the large number of single-parent households in Forest Park, households that rely on schools to provide a place for children to safely learn during the school days.

“No matter what plan we had in place, there will be unhappy people,” Cavallo said.

Of course, if the region slips back into Phase Three of the Restore Illinois Plan, remote learning will once more be the only option.

Editor’s Note: After publication of this article, the FPTA contacted the Review to say they are in discussion with the superintendent and working collaboratively on this issue.