On Jan. 4, the Forest Park elementary school District 91 announced it would begin to bring students back into the classrooms in February. Parents and guardians have been given a choice to either keep their children in remote learning only or allow them to return to the classrooms three mornings a week beginning then.
At a Jan. 14 board of education meeting, Superintendent Lou Cavallo explained the plan in more detail and answered questions raised by parents.
The hybrid approach to learning, which will begin with students in the classrooms in February, brings children into the building on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings for instruction in the core subjects. The lessons will be held primarily via Zoom, even for kids in the classrooms, so they will be on the same page, so to speak, as kids learning remotely.
The response to the survey asking parents to choose was very good, Cavallo said, and the results were about 50/50, with half the parents choosing to send their children back part-time and half opting to continue with the remote-learning plan.
Cavallo addressed several questions brought up during the meeting.
Why will kids in the classrooms still be learning on Zoom?
“We did not want to have inequity between the students that are in the building and the students that are receiving their education at home,” Cavallo said.
He said the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) requires that at this point in the Restore Illinois plan, schools must provide a remote option for all students. To keep education equitable for those choosing to learn remotely, a focus on teaching via Zoom would be made so all students would be receiving the same education.
Cavallo said the district looked at different options, such as asynchronous instruction for the children learning from home. But that would mean those students would be working essentially on their own, without live interaction with the teacher.
“That’s not the best instruction, especially for young kids to be independent and on their own,” Cavallo said. “That really requires the parent to become a teacher on those days. And we did not want to do that.”
Another option would be to live stream the in-class lesson to the students learning remotely. But Cavallo said he’d spoken to other districts that tried that, and it was not an ideal solution.
“The kids at home are always trying to hear and figure out what’s happening, and those that have done it and told us it doesn’t work that well,” he said.
Ultimately, the decision was made that teaching via Zoom for both the students in the classroom and those learning remotely was the best solution.
“We decided that what we could do was continue to use Zoom primarily to provide an education to the kids in the room with the teacher as well as at home,” Cavallo said, but he added that teachers have been experimenting with Zoom and other technology, such as Promethean boards, to figure out ways to allow the kids in the classrooms to have the best experience possible while not neglecting those students not physically present.
Why is the in-person option for mornings only, not full days of school?
Another concern parents brought up was the fact that offering mornings-only for children returning to school was difficult for working parents, especially since the district is unable to provide transportation at this point.
Cavallo said he understood the morning-only option “is a tough one for a lot of parents.”
But there are multiple issues, he said, related to having students in the buildings for full days.
First, filling an entire day’s schedule would involve participation in specials, like physical education and music, that are difficult to do with masks and social distancing.
Second, lunch would need to be served if students attended all day long, and that, obviously, would require removal of masks, something the district isn’t sure can or should be done. It still being winter, lunch outdoors isn’t currently an option.
What if kids won’t wear masks?
The question of how to help students who can’t or won’t keep masks on was raised, particularly considering special needs kids or very young students.
Cavallo said it will be a requirement to keep masks on at all times, but he said it seems to be less of an issue than many had originally thought it might be.
“What we have found is that this has been far less of an issue with the majority of the students and schools than people were fearing,” Cavallo said.
He pointed out that the park district and community center have been caring for children during the pandemic, and those students, required to wear masks, have done so with little issue.
If a child forgets to pull his mask up after taking a sip of water, for example, he’ll be given a reminder from the teacher to put it back on, said Cavallo. But if a parent is concerned that, for some reason, his or her child won’t comply with wearing a mask, choosing in-person learning might not be a good idea.
“I think some folks may need to consider if their student is one that really just can’t wear a mask. Maybe their remote option is better. I mean, you have that choice. But we’re going to ask that all students wear masks just like everywhere else,” Cavallo said.
What if someone in a classroom tests positive for COVID-19?
According to Cavallo, if someone tests positive and has remained six feet apart from everyone and worn a mask the entire time, a quarantine of the whole class will not be necessary.
“It is only when we’re within six feet, then anyone else that was within six feet would also have to be quarantined for 10 days,” Cavallo said.
According to Cavallo, two teachers tested positive during winter break, and he had learned of another diagnosis the day of the meeting. Teachers were advised to remain home for the two weeks following winter break and then were given the option to return to the building.
What cleaning and sanitizing efforts will be made?
Cavallo said the safety of the students and staff is the priority. Masks will be required. Distancing will be enforced. The majority of classrooms will have between six and eight students, “so there will be plenty of room to separate kids out,” Cavallo said.
The buildings have hydrostatic sprayers that will be used in the evenings. HEPA filters have been installed in all the schools. Outside air intake has increased, which might result in the classrooms being a little colder. “But that’s the safer thing to do,” Cavallo said.
Extra custodial staff has been hired to make sure everything is constantly cleaned. For example, after a student uses the bathroom, staff will be notified and the restroom will be sanitized.
“Phase Two isn’t meant to be back to normal, back to better instruction, back to what we all really want,” Cavallo said. “It is a phase of getting kids in the building for the first time so that we can move on to hopefully having real in person instruction shortly after. That will depend on a lot of factors, including the vaccine. We don’t have a date for that yet; we have to wait until the metrics tell us it’s safe to do so.”
And he reiterated something he’s said before: “The virus is in control here.” At any time, the plan might change depending on what the status of COVID-19 is locally and upon advice from the ISBE and health agencies.
D91 teacher Patricia Allocco submitted a letter that was read during the meeting. Allocco questioned why the district wasn’t waiting until all teachers had been vaccinated.
“I question why we are pushing to return students to the classroom when there are two new strains of the virus and we are so close to getting the vaccine,” wrote Allocco. “Why put the teachers and students and D91 families at risk now? While remote learning is far from perfect, the students and teachers of D91 have gotten into a routine and are doing well. Why can’t we wait until the teachers get vaccinated?”