Charting its own course

Ball Charter remains remote

click to enlarge As students at Ball Charter, school board member Micah Miller's daughters continue to learn from home. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MICAH MILLE
Photo courtesy of Micah Mille
As students at Ball Charter, school board member Micah Miller's daughters continue to learn from home.

Micah Miller is one of the three District 186 school board members to consistently vote for schools to remain remote. Whichever position parents, teachers, administrators or board members take – it's a controversial one. While just about any in-person activity comes with a risk to health these days, Springfield serves many low-income and at-risk students who need extra help.

More than 300 days after students were first told to stay home via state mandate – in March of last year – some Springfield Public Schools students returned to class through the hybrid plan. About 44% of students enrolled in the hybrid option in Springfield. They are split into two groups, each of which go to classes in-person two days per week.

The decision for hybrid was made Jan. 4. Students returned Jan. 12. In order for them to do so, the board strayed from public health metrics it had previously voted to follow. In a decision of four to three, the board decided to implement its return plan, created over the summer as was required by the Illinois State Board of Education. The state has allowed local districts to decide when to send kids back to school.

Miller's two daughters attend Ball Charter, which teaches grades kindergarten-eight. As the only charter school within District 186, it has its own board and freedom to make many of its own decisions. Students enroll through a lottery. Miller, who works for the Illinois Secretary of State, said remote learning has been hard for his family. He wasn't approved to work remotely until recently, so he was going into the office during nights and weekends to have more time to help his kids with school. "It's been stressful."

Still, he said, remote learning mitigates the spread of infection throughout the community, and lessens risk for teachers and school staff who face a higher risk of complications than youth. He said getting more people vaccinated should be a factor in deciding when students return to classrooms.

Private schools in Springfield opened their doors to students for the fall semester. According to the Sangamon County Department of Public Health and its exposure data published Nov. 12, schools accounted for 5.19% of exposure locations in the county, trailing bars and restaurants, offices, hospitals, travel and workplaces.

The principal of Ball Charter, Tiffany Williams, said when it came to the decision of whether to reopen in August, "I chose remote because I've always looked at the health and safety risks. I don't feel like we knew enough about the effects of COVID and how to effectively protect our staff during that time."

Remote doesn't mean kids aren't getting help in-person. Williams said since the beginning of the school year, 10-15% of the school's 396 students have received additional in-person support, such as instruction for those with special needs. While there have been plenty of challenges, remote learning has meant consistency during these uncertain times, she said. "It's safer to consider the data and think critically about what will allow us to be more consistent than it would be to rush and have approximately 25% of our students in the building at any one time."

In order for Ball Charter to return to in-person learning, three out of four school metrics set by the Illinois Department of Public Health must be sustained at a "minimum" risk level over the course of two weeks, according to the school's own return plan. They are similar to the metrics the district, which served 13,411 students in 2020, decided to stray from. Metrics include the positivity rate of county residents and new youth cases. As of Jan. 19, zero out of the past 14 days were "successful" – the last being Christmas. Williams said vaccination rates could end up playing a role in the decision of when to return. She said she hopes the hybrid option will be offered this school year.

Miller said his daughters have become more tech-savvy over the course of the past year. While there are challenges, there have been successes too. "I've seen my first-grader grow by leaps and bounds with her reading skills." And his third-grader is learning multiplication. Miller said he knows remote learning doesn't compare to being at school in-person. "But when you're in the midst of a pandemic, and you're trying to keep people alive, I think it's a pretty good alternative."

This story has been updated to reflect Miller's current work status.

If you have an education-related story that you'd like to share, contact Rachel Otwell: rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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