Back to school (buildings)

Students return as District 186's hybrid option begins

click to enlarge RACHEL OTWELL
Rachel Otwell

Some Springfield Public Schools students returned to the classroom on Tuesday, for the first time in more than 300 days. Students across Illinois were sent home last March due to state COVID-19 mitigations. The District 186 board voted to implement its hybrid plan at a Jan. 4 meeting. Reportedly, about 44% of students had enrolled for the hybrid option for the second semester of the 2020-’21 school year. Schools that reopened to students include elementary through high school.

Other students remain under the remote option, where they learn entirely from home. Mondays are for independent learning, while remote students log into classes via Zoom Tuesdays through Fridays. Under the hybrid plan, one group of students attends school in-person on Tuesdays and Thursdays while learning from home on other days of the week. The other group attends in-person on Wednesdays and Fridays. This semester, a new attendance check-in is being used for students in 6-12 grades.

For those learning with the hybrid model, masks are required on school busses and at school. Students are screened for COVID-19 symptoms on each day they attend school. The district asks that children with a temperature of 100.4 or higher, or who have symptoms, be kept at home and that the school is contacted.

The decision over whether and when students should return to in-person classes has been contentious. Last year, a petition with hundreds of signatures was circulated and shared with the board, urging that schools reopen. In September, the school board established metrics based on public health data to decide when schools would reopen for those who chose the hybrid option.

At the meeting earlier this month, the board voted against the metrics it had set, based on data including the county’s positivity rate and the amount of newly confirmed cases among youth. Board president Scott McFarland had been a proponent of basing the decision on when to reopen based on those parameters. But he voted along with others on Jan. 4 to reopen school even though the metrics previously agreed upon had not been reached. He credited new information and time for planning over the past several months.

“Not only do I have to factor in the safety of our students, which I feel I am, I also have to factor in equity,” McFarland said during the Jan. 4 meeting in which the board agreed in a vote of 4-3 to initiate the hybrid plan. “Kids are falling behind.”

The district has had a Return to Learn plan in place since the summer, as was required by the Illinois State Board of Education. The plan on its website was last updated Aug. 25.

McFarland said if community-spread of COVID-19 becomes concerning, he could call an emergency meeting for the board to discuss whether to return all students back to remote learning. But it’s unclear at what point that decision might be made.

“There is no trigger point for us deciding it’s too dangerous again,” Aaron Graves told Illinois Times. “It was left absolutely open to interpretation.” Graves is the president of the Springfield Education Association, the union for District 186 staff and teachers.

Graves said going forward, he wants transparency from the district when it comes to potential cases where a COVID-19 infected person was in a school building. “Obviously we have to protect everybody's anonymity,” Graves said, “but as we’re analyzing the situation, let's look at the real data.”

The next school board meeting is Jan. 19.

Contact Rachel Otwell at

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