No easy answers for returning to school

District 186 teachers have many questions. For now, parents must decide.

click to enlarge A flyer spotted on the corner of Laurel and State streets advertises openings for bus drivers and monitors. - RACHEL OTWELL
Rachel Otwell
A flyer spotted on the corner of Laurel and State streets advertises openings for bus drivers and monitors.

"With child care closed, how are people supposed to go to work?"

"Will we receive COVID-19 protection pay increases?"

"If a teacher dies, will the district be held responsible?"

"Will my family receive death benefits if I die from COVID-19?"

These are just some examples of the several hundred questions collected by the Springfield Education Association, the union that covers teachers and staff for Springfield Public Schools. On July 20, the school board discussed options for the upcoming school year. The union says the vast majority of its questions remain unanswered.

Here's what's clear: Families have two choices before them for the remainder of 2020. They can register students to learn from home, or enroll them for a blended/hybrid option, where they would spend some days learning remotely and others in the classroom if the plan is approved.

"There is a chance that we could still go back to fully remote," Supt. Jennifer Gill said during the meeting. She said public health data might be the ultimate influence. Grades and attendance will go back to more traditional models, regardless, she said. Gill was charged with forming working groups and spearheading plans to present to the board. Social and emotional wellness were considered, as were human resource and other issues. Gill promised an in-depth FAQ sheet addressing concerns is forthcoming.

School board member Mike Zimmers, who worked as a teacher, principal and administrator, said he would not support a return to classrooms under current conditions. "I will only vote for remote," he said. "We're going to be naive if we don't think that many of our students and our teachers are going to come down with COVID if we open up our schools."

One point of contention has been just what the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) suggests. Springfield school board president Scott McFarland said he spoke with ISBE representatives after the July 20 school board meeting and was told, "The guidance is for districts to put forward plans for both a remote and in-person model, and then it's up to the local school districts to determine what's best." He said if the decision is made for those who choose to do so to return to school in fall, his kids will be going. "I'm not going to decide to open up schools and then have my kids stay home." In Chicago, a tentative plan allows families to also choose between a hybrid model where students would be broken into "pods" and rotate into classrooms for two days a week, or a strictly remote model instead. In Decatur, the public school district recently announced the school year would begin remotely for all.

The Springfield school board voted to cut the time for speakers during public comment at its recent meeting in half, to 90 seconds. Some had prepared comments given the regular time frame of three minutes, and rushed their words. One teacher told the board she survived COVID-19, but, with a hoarse voice, said she wasn't sure what permanent damage she might suffer, before being cut off due to time. SEA president Aaron Graves condemned the decision to limit time to speak. "Choosing to limit employees' and citizens' freedom of speech, especially in the wake of the most critical return to school we have ever had in history, is a treacherous road."

Nick Pickett, a high school math and science coach, told the board, "I see myself and others in similar roles as potential vectors of this disease. We're in multiple buildings, working with multiple teachers in multiple classrooms with multiple students." He said he has three kids who all attend separate schools. "We could be the super-spreaders." A school nurse told the board she was worried about asymptomatic cases that couldn't be screened with temperature checks. In general, the comments from staff and parents were fueled by the anxiety about health risks. Gill said there will be plans for contact tracing, deep cleaning, screenings for student and staff health, distancing in classrooms and bus monitors, and that knowing the amount of students who plan to return is imperative.

On Aug. 3, after registration closes on July 31, the board will reconvene to reassess and take a vote to approve the school-year calendar and ultimate plans. Whichever decision is made, it will not be easy. Gill said the spread of the virus – the ultimate decider – is impossible to predict. "But it's going in the wrong direction, we realize that."

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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