Back to class?

District 186 parents petition for hybrid

click to enlarge PAINTING BY FELICIA OLIN
Painting by Felicia Olin
Hundreds of people in Springfield apparently signed a petition demanding students be allowed to reenter public classrooms. In the city, private schools have welcomed students back to in-person learning. However, District 186 decided it would begin the 2020-'21 school year remotely for all.

During the Oct. 5 school board meeting, Sarah Rogers spoke on behalf of those who had signed the petition sent to board members. "Talking with so many families and students of the struggles they're experiencing has been both eye-opening and heartbreaking," she said. "These kids and their parents are literally begging to go back to school. The current model has not been working for them. This petition, as well as numerous letters and pleas, should be enough evidence to add the hybrid model." A copy reviewed by Illinois Times showed more than 600 signatures from parents, students, teachers and "concerned citizens." The district is set to open schools for hybrid learners, who would attend in-person classes some days, once metrics based on public health data are met for a period of two consecutive weeks.

"We had over 6,000 students signed up for hybrid when we did registration in July and August. I know there are quite a few people out there who definitely do want to go back to school," said school board president, Scott McFarland. "I'm one of them." McFarland said his own children will return once the hybrid option is enacted, but that won't happen until metrics based on health guidance are met. The district is basing the metrics on levels deemed to have minimal or moderate risk by the state health department. "If cases are continuing to rise in the community, unfortunately we can't control that, we can only control what's inside the schools." And with the way data has trended, he doesn't project the hybrid option to be considered until at least early November. On Oct. 10, Sangamon County hit a record high of newly confirmed cases, with 89 reported in a single day. The hybrid option, as outlined in plans from earlier in the year, would have students attend in-person class two days per week.

Gail O'Neill, Sangamon County Public Health Department director, said she doesn't know of any COVID-19 outbreaks in the county resulting from schools. Private schools opened their doors to students this fall. In an Oct. 12 interview with Illinois Times, she said the health department so far had known of a single case of transmission "within a school."

On Oct. 8, ProPublica Illinois and Chicago Tribune published a report that the Illinois Department of Public Health had confirmed outbreaks in at least 44 schools statewide. According to the report, more than 1,800 public schools in Illinois are operating in person at least partially, as well as an "unknown number of private schools." IDPH does not publicize where school outbreaks have occurred or the number of cases tied to certain schools.

During the Oct. 5 meeting, Supt. Jennifer Gill said plans have been underway to prepare for when a return does happen. "We have been working very hard to get all of the supplies and materials that we can in place so that when students do return to learn in District 186 that we are ready." Each school has its own safety plan, with details as granular as how students can safely get a drink of water, Gill said. Social distancing markers have been placed and new hand sanitizer stations have been purchased. Plexiglass has been installed in office areas. The list goes on.

During the public comment period, Aaron Graves of the Springfield Education Association, the union representing teachers and staff, said workers are prepared to return upon review and approval of the safety plans. "If those are solid, SEA is entirely behind a hybrid return." The union has asked for an advanced notice of 10 days before hybrid learning would begin in order for families and teachers to prepare.

The district added a section to its website, sps186.org, tracking the metrics being used to decide when it's safe to return. As reported for the week of Sept. 27-Oct. 3, the new case rate and number of youth cases were both in the "substantial" risk category. And when students do return, protocols for safety will mean it won't be a true return to normalcy. About half of students have enrolled to finish the calendar year remotely regardless.

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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