Freya Kamdar, along with about 80 other D91 students, returned to the classroom on Feb. 8. | Photo provided

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For the first time since the pandemic closed schools last year, some students were back in District 91 classrooms, learning in person this week. Approximately 80 children in preschool, Kindergarten, third grade and sixth grade went back on Feb. 8.

This is about half the kids in those grades and represents the trend seen across all grades in the district: the ratio was about 50-50 for families opting to continue exclusively with remote learning and those opting to send their kids back three mornings a week.

“We are so excited to see our students in the buildings for the first time since last April,” said Superintendent Lou Cavallo in a Jan. 29 email to parents reminding them about the hybrid back-to-school plan.

This first week brings the youngest learners in each school back to the buildings. At Garfield, it is preschoolers and Kindergarteners. At Betsy, it is Kindergarten students. At Grant White and Field Stevenson, third graders returned, and at the middle school, sixth graders were in the classrooms.

Next week, the second youngest students at each school will return: first, fourth and seventh grades. And on the Feb. 22, grades two, five and eight will be back at school.

In-person classes are being held three mornings a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. And students whose families have opted to continue remote learning will learn via Zoom along with the kids at school, who will also be on their Chrome books, in an effort to ensure all the students are learning the same material.

Parents were surveyed and given a choice whether to have their children continue learning remotely or begin the hybrid approach, and in a recent memo to parents, Cavallo said the responses were about evenly split.

“Based upon the last survey our school community is evenly split between in-person and remote learning, which is why District 91 is taking a cautious, phased-in approach to bringing students and teachers back into our school buildings,” Cavallo wrote in the Jan. 29 memo to parents.

Lauren Marshall takes George Ryder’s temperature at Garfield School on Feb. 8.

Rebecca Vnuk, who has two sons in the district, said their family has opted to continue with remote learning for now.

“They’re doing fine academically, and we are lucky that they don’t seem to have any issues socially,” Vnuk said. She said her schedule allows her to have the choice to keep them home.

“I’m incredibly privileged to work from home on my own schedule, so I can accommodate them staying home,” Vnuk said. “I’m not comfortable exposing the teachers and staff to in-person teaching just yet. I wish we were farther along in vaccinations; then I think I’d feel a lot better about in-person.”

Natasha Gittings, parent of a 4th grader in the district, decided to send her daughter back for in-person classes. She also plans to send her high schooler back to Proviso Math and Science Academy when it opens back up.

“They miss routine, school and getting out of the house,” Gittings said. “They are really good with masks and staying safe.” She added that the park district and community center have been accommodating children, and as far as she knows, there has been no increase in transmission at either location as a result.

“Teachers are getting vaccinated, so that helps too,” said Gittings, a nurse who has been working in a hospital throughout the pandemic.

“I am still nervous at times,” she said. “We can take this one day at a time.”

Masks are required for anyone entering the school buildings, including students, teachers, and staff. Tables have been replaced with desks to maintain social distancing. Parents must fill out a daily symptom screener form, and temperatures are checked prior to entry to school buildings.

The guidelines are outlined in the District 91 COVID Handbook, available on the district’s website at d91.org.

Cavallo said the district is following all CDC and IDPH guidelines to keep students and staff safe. Custodians are working hard to keep classrooms, hallways and restrooms clean and sanitized.

“The vaccine may be here, but we are certainly not out of the woods yet, which is why it is so important to continue to practice safe distancing, wash your hands and wear a mask,” Cavallo wrote.

Teachers, said Cavallo, are preparing to educate children in a hybrid environment, “working not only with students in the classroom but also with those who will continue to learn remotely. Hybrid learning is not a perfect solution, but we will do our best to provide a quality learning experience for every child in District 91 remote and in person. We know our students are anxious to get back in the classroom.”