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Illinois Superintendents: Remote Learning Vital for Fall

Administrators from both school districts in the Naperville, Ill., area Monday defended their decisions to start the school year in September and to have all students do remote learning into October.

by Suzanne Baker, Naperville Sun / August 5, 2020
Shutterstock/iJeab

(TNS) — Administrators from both Naperville-area school districts Monday defended their decisions to start the school year in September and to have all students do remote learning into October.

The changes were made weeks after Naperville District 203 Superintendent Dan Bridges and Indian Prairie District 204 Superintendent Adrian Talley presented a different approach to the return to class: a choice between learning online on a full-time basis or going to school on some days and learning from home on others.

Bridges and Talley, speaking to their respective school boards at separate meetings, said information they’ve received in the past few weeks caused them to switch the plans.

Among the factors raising alarms was the growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

District 204 said state figures show that from July 15 to July 28, the positivity rate for the region that includes DuPage County rose from 3.8% to 4.7%. In the region to the south that includes Will County, the rate rose from 4.6% to 6.3%. Both districts have schools in DuPage and Will.

“These numbers and this trend in a short amount of time gave us cause to rethink our plan,” Talley said.

District 204 Deputy Superintendent Doug Eccarius said an advisory issued by DuPage County health officials specifically mentioned that the recent cases should be of particular concern because they were occurring as schools were making preparations to reopen.

Data shows COVID-19 cases in DuPage County among people ages 10 to 19 increased from 5% of all cases prior to July 1 to 18% as of July 19. Confirmed cases involving people ages 20 to 29 made up 16% of all cases before July 1 to 25% as of July 19.

Bridges said district officials worried about the disruption that would result from starting the school year using the hybrid plan of in-person and at-home learning only to be forced to return to full-time remote learning because of shifts in the pandemic.

In addition, the administrators cited problems with how they would handle the 14-day quarantine period teachers and students would have to complete if someone in a class tested positive for the coronavirus and the length of time substitute teachers would need to be deployed.

Another factor was providing enough teachers to support the students who enrolled in online learning.

An Indian Prairie survey conducted earlier in the year showed 24% of parents would pick online learning as their first choice for instruction, but the actual number signed up by July 31 was 45%, Eccarius said.

“We found our saw ourselves really creating two different schools at the high school level,” Talley said.

Indian Prairie’s staffing resources already are one of the lowest among the DuPage County school districts, he said, and stretched too thin to accommodate simultaneous in-school and online learning options.

Bridges said District 203 faced a similar problem when they also had more families than expected sign up for online learning.

School board members from both school districts were adamant that politics did not play a role in the decisions made nor were they pressured by local education unions to pursue e-learning.

The remote learning plan has met with pushback from parents who say students should attend school because of the benefits of in-person learning and praise from those who want their kids to be safe from possible COVID-19 exposure and still receive the same education as students in a classroom.

By 4 p.m. Monday, District 203 had received 462 pages of comments from residents expressing their opinions to be shared with the school board later that night.

School board members said they had read all the comments, such as those from parents Chris and Lynn Esser, who wrote they were disappointed in-person learning was eliminated. “The students do not learn well via a screen or from home. … Teachers and students need verbal and non-verbal communicative feedback to ensure optimal learning,” they said.

Ellen Paik, in an email, thanked the district for “deeply caring for the safety and health of our students and our community during this difficult and confusing time.”

“I hope you don’t get swayed by uncomfortable pressure but follow the guiding principles of disease transmission and how to protect one another from this pandemic,” Paik wrote.

Bridges said he understands the plight parents are facing.

“I have a daughter who will be a high school senior in our district,” he said. “The decisions I make not only impact you and your kids, they impact my family as well.

“Unfortunately, we recognize any decision that is made on returning to learn in the fall will not please everyone. We have to accept that as much as we do not like it, there are sacrifices being made by all of us.”

Community responses were similar in neighboring District 204, where the school board Monday allowed 30 minutes for people to have their say.

As a parent of an incoming freshman at Metea Valley High School in Aurora, Brian Palm urged the board to let students and families decide what’s best for them. While some prefer the online option to avoid any risk, “there are many students that want to take the risk and go and interact with their teachers and interact with other students in the classroom,” he said.

Talley said besides the comments at the board meeting, the district had received thousands of emails and calls from parents offering their opinions.

In addition, the Parent Diversity Advisory Council hosted listening forums in which 600 families participated and raised concerns how District 204 would deal with vulnerable families and students with special needs, council member Karen Zatz said.

Talley said it was important that parents know Indian Prairie has worked to create a plan that can be executed “with fidelity and reliability.”

“I know for some, they are happy with our plans and for others, they are not,” he said. “I recognize that we cannot, nor will not be able to please everyone. It is not possible.

“What I can say, though, is that we will strive to prove this plan will support our students and their academic needs,” he said.

©2020 the Naperville Sun, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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