Schools shapeshift

Families adjust to ever-changing plans

click to enlarge PAINTING BY FELICIA OLIN
Painting by Felicia Olin

John Freml never anticipated squaring off with the Springfield public school district over pajamas. Among the details to work out for the coming school year, District 186 updated its student handbook. Per the guidelines, students can't wear pajamas during the school day, even when school is happening at home. "My first instinct was just how ridiculous it sounded," said Freml.

Freml has a deep understanding that for some kids, life isn't easy. "I've seen and heard some really heartbreaking things." That includes what his own children have lived through. He and his husband adopted a son and daughter last year, after first fostering them. "A lot of kids in Springfield are going through similar or even worse than what my kids were going through before they came to live with us."

While the talk of pajamas earlier in August swiftly rotated out of the news cycle, the issue is indicative of the myriad ways the new coronavirus has brought up a host of contentious issues when it comes to the way students learn mid-pandemic. Families and school staff have sought clarity over the summer months as leadership has coordinated shifting plans. And teachers and staff have taken hundreds of questions to the administration demanding answers. For a district with more than than 30 schools, and some 14,000 students enrolled last year, there are no easy answers, and perhaps no great ones.

Plans are anything but uniform across the state. About 24% of the school districts who responded to an Illinois State Board of Education survey will offer remote learning to begin the school year, 30% will have in-person learning and 46% will offer a blended model.

In March, with short notice, all learning in Illinois went remote, or at-home, as a result of statewide mitigation efforts as COVID-19 began to spread. In Sangamon County, there have now been more than 1,500 confirmed cases. The county, as of the week of Aug. 2 through 8, was at a positivity rate of 6%. State officials have set a positivity rate of 8% for three or more days as the benchmark for when further restrictions should be implemented. For now, Sangamon County is in phase four of the state's reopening plan, which allows for gatherings of 50 people or less and for schools to reopen. But opening schools has proven to be easier said than done in districts such as Springfield's.

Return to Learn

On Aug. 3, the Springfield school board approved its "Return to Learn" plan, which included models for both hybrid/blended and remote/at-home learning. The so-called "hybrid" model would have students in class some days of the week, while at home on others. Several working groups had begun to meet in spring to go over topics such as social and emotional wellness and human resources among other practicalities.

The superintendent was tasked with convening meetings and spearheading the plan. General info includes details about required face coverings, daily health screenings for staff and students, social distance and group sizes. In all, the document paints a picture of a new and different version of in-person learning: required health screenings, isolating and sending home students who do present symptoms, new ways to handle meals and recess, enhanced cleaning and a host of other new details.

As the plan notes, the governor's reopening strategy "strongly encourages" in-person instruction for the phase Sangamon County is currently in. The state plan also requires mitigation efforts such as those District 186 worked to compile. On July 21, registration for the coming school year opened. Families were told to choose whether they favored remote learning only, or a hybrid model instead. As of Aug. 12, nearly 12,000 students were registered, according to school board member Tiffany Mathis. Most had enrolled for the hybrid option, though it was a near-even split.

After much consideration, Freml, who has a kindergartner and a second-grader, chose the hybrid option. "I was really torn." Freml said he and his husband consulted with others, including a speech therapist who works with Freml's son. "The message that we got from those teachers we talked to is that they really wanted to be in-person. They really wanted to see our kids." Freml felt the hybrid option was the best way to have his kids' needs met. And he was comforted by those who promised safety.

click to enlarge Camp Compass went remote this summer. Students show off blankets they made as an enrichment activity during a lesson. - CREDIT: COURTESY OF CAMP COMPASS
Credit: courtesy of Camp Compass
Camp Compass went remote this summer. Students show off blankets they made as an enrichment activity during a lesson.

At an Aug. 13 special meeting, the board decided not to begin the school year offering the hybrid option. Per the approved resolution, a select few may get to learn in-person based on needs, but for virtually everyone who registered for hybrid, that option is off the table for now, likely until at least Oct. 26. Even though he had chosen hybrid in July, it was a decision Freml was hoping the board would make. Before then, Freml said he had been second-guessing his choice "every moment of every day." As cases of coronavirus began to rise in the county, so did his anxiety.

Part of Freml's contention with the district's plans for remote learning had to do with a focus on what kids wear while learning, and from where. Freml had wondered, what are kids experiencing homelessess supposed to do? Where are they supposed to sit? How will their clothing or appearance be judged?

Summer experience

Most students in District 186 – 55% – come from low-income families. Of those, 1.3% are without a home, according to 2019 state data. Compass For Kids is a nonprofit organization to support at-risk students. It focuses on academic help and social and emotional well-being. Camp Compass, a summer program conducted in partnership with District 186, aims to help close the so-called achievement gap between low-income children and those from higher-earning families.

The summer program has been used as a touchstone to plan remote learning for the fall. This year, it provided remote summer school for elementary school-age children in the district. Molly Berendt, executive director, heads the programming. "We had to modify everything," she said. Camp Compass prioritized both academics and enrichment, as well as social and emotional support. Lessons were broken into daily 90-minute sessions. Berendt said keeping students' attention past the hour-mark could prove difficult.

What helped was changing up the order subjects were taught, and having two teachers per class. Class sizes were small. With the two teachers, kids could get one-on-one assistance when needed. "That helped the kids to feel like they were getting enough attention, and differentiated instruction." Parents could choose between a morning or afternoon session for their children, flexibility that Berendt said was helpful for working families.

Berendt said another popular factor was enrichment kits that volunteers delivered to the children's homes. They contained activities that they could do on their own time with recorded instructions. The activities included cooking, science, art projects and more. About 250 students enrolled. Compass programming during the school year will remain remote for now. Berendt said she plans to continue using the enrichment kits, and found many methods used over the summer to be successful: the small class sizes of less than 10 students, 90-minute-long learning sessions and multiple teachers per class. "It was clear that the kids wanted to be there," she said. Certain staff also served as parent liaisons to help families identify good spaces in the home for learning and to answer questions. The enrichment and social emotional components will continue to be prioritized this coming school year as well, said Berendt.

Safety first

While the governor had been clear about shutting down in-person classes across Illinois in spring when the pandemic was fresh and largely unknown, guidance for fall has been more fluid. The Illinois Department of Public Health released guidance on Aug. 12, after many districts had already decided on plans to begin the school year. The following Sunday, the Ball-Chatham district reconsidered its plan to offer a blended model of classes. School board members discussed how to possibly manage the new guidance. After hours of debate and two separate meetings, it chose on Aug. 17 to offer blended learning after all. The first day of school for students there is Aug. 24. Other area districts, such as in Auburn and Rochester, have chosen to begin remotely like Springfield.

In its new FAQ sheet, IDPH lists a number of possible COVID-19 symptoms, per the Centers for Disease Control: headache, fatigue, nausea and diarrhea among them. IDPH states those who present one or more symptoms while in school should be immediately isolated and evaluated. From there, consultation with a health care provider is needed and a coronavirus test is "strongly encouraged" before students can return in-person. The practicalities of addressing every headache and cough in underresourced schools has rung alarm bells.

On Aug. 1, a group of area school superintendents and health experts got together to discuss plans via Zoom. Illinois Times obtained related correspondence through a public records request. Topics included the county's preparedness to handle higher rates of testing that many agree would be needed if school were back in session. When medical professionals in the conversation were asked to unofficially vote, nine said they were against reopening in coming weeks. Three, according to an email, were in favor. Dr. Vidya Sundareshan, an infectious disease specialist at SIU School of Medicine, had said the county did not have adequate testing capacity for schools to reopen, according to records of the chat.

click to enlarge Some schools in Illinois, including those in Chatham, plan to have students return to the classroom this fall. - PAINTING BY FELICIA OLIN
Painting by Felicia Olin
Some schools in Illinois, including those in Chatham, plan to have students return to the classroom this fall.

Sundareshan later told NPR Illinois that hundreds of tests were conducted daily in the county. But, "If a lot of children are sent back home we may not have that, we may need up to 1,500 tests a day. ... We don't know. But you definitely want to be prepared for a higher number."

After the informal Zoom meeting, Sangamon County Department of Public Health released guidelines to members of the media. Apparently originating in July, they were last updated Aug. 6. A cover letter for the guidelines states, "Students, teachers and school staff are at considerable risk for contracting and spreading the virus, given the current rate of community transmission, whether or not schools are open. Therefore everyone in and around the school community must take steps to reduce this risk by wearing masks and maintaining social distances." The letter doesn't assert a position on whether schools should reopen. "Our community's dedicated education professionals are best positioned to judge whether, given their particular circumstances, their schools can fully comply with the medical guidelines we have provided. Local school boards and school administrators should use this guidance, along with parent and teacher input, to make their decisions."

The 25-page county document also lists what should happen if students and staff present a single symptom, similar to the IDPH guidance. Flow charts show what to do if a student is symptomatic, as well as how schools should work with the health department when known cases have entered school buildings. Isolation, quarantine and contact tracing are all key components to a plan that allows students to reassemble.

When presented options on how to enroll her daughter who attends District 186 for the coming school year, Buffy Lael-Wolf, who works for Hospital Sisters Health System, chose remote-only. "It felt like the heaviest decision I was ever going to make for my child's life," she said. When school had gone remote this past spring, her family made do. At the beginning, Wolf made detailed schedules for her daughter, but those quickly became untenable. Wolf has since reported back to the office for work and won't be home during weekdays to help as much. She's taking time off at the beginning of the school year to help her daughter, Nea, and husband who is a stay-at-home parent, set up a plan for fifth grade. Nea has autism and her own preference was clear. "I want to go back to school, Mom. I want to see my friends," Wolf remembered Nea pleading.

But Wolf explained that school would not be what Nea remembered. There would be masks and distancing, likely no music class which she loved, and desks that faced the front of the room. All things that weren't conducive to Nea's learning style. And Wolf wanted to help reserve space for kids who maybe needed to be in-person even more. Still, said Wolf, "We really want her to be in the classroom."

Information provided to District 186 by medical professionals included an article in the The New England Journal of Medicine titled "Reopening Primary Schools during the Pandemic." It states that whether or not to reopen schools is not only a scientific question, but a moral and emotional one. Those in education often see it as their duty to protect children at all costs. Meanwhile, schoolteachers are often undercompensated women who are expected to sacrifice themselves for that cause. "School closures have also brought social, economic and racial injustice into sharp relief, with historically marginalized children and families – and the educators who serve them – suffering the most and being offered the least. For all these reasons, decisions about school reopenings will remain complex and contested," the article reads. The article states there should be no question that safe and reliable primary schools are crucial for society, and, "It is inexcusable to open nonessential services for adults this summer if it forces students to remain at home even part-time this fall."

Sangamon County has indeed seen the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in a single day hit a record high in August. A regular source of spread is social gatherings, according to the county's public health department director.

It's clear that not everyone can be convinced to help stem the spread of the coronavirus. The president himself has at times downplayed the need to do so, and has neglected to provide comprehensive support to states. The pandemic has become political. And kids are among those paying the price.

Who cares?

Kelsey Pedigo lives in Chatham with her husband. He does landscaping, she's a medical coder who works from home. They have a blended family. Pedigo's five-year-old, Rocky, is a quiet kid. Adult-style haircut. Clean clothes. Super well-behaved. Wears a mask with little complaint. Still, when it came time to enroll him for kindergarten, Pedigo couldn't imagine having him start in the classroom just yet. Rocky has asthma. And while he's an abnormally well-behaved five-year-old, social distance and hours of mask-wearing seemed unrealistic.

"We just felt like school was a little bit too much exposure, a little bit too high-risk for our family," said Pedigo. Upon finding out that school is not required by the state for kids under six years old, she decided she and her family would go rogue. Pedigo's mother is retired and can help with schooling and provide child care while she works. "I know that not everybody can do that," said Pedigo. But, she figures, if one less kid in the classroom helps a teacher feel safer, "I'm going to support him or her and do that." Unlike others with remote schooling, Pedigo is truly undertaking homeschool, where she will be responsible for the curriculum and making sure Rocky is hitting age-appropropriate targets.

click to enlarge Kelsey and Nick Pedigo will be teachers for their son Rocky this year, as they chose not to enroll him in school. - CREDIT: RACHEL OTWELL
Credit: Rachel Otwell
Kelsey and Nick Pedigo will be teachers for their son Rocky this year, as they chose not to enroll him in school.

District 186 board member Tiffany Mathis is CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Illinois, which provides summer care for at-risk children. This year, masks were worn and other mitigation efforts were in effect. No one associated with programming was confirmed to have had COVID-19 during that time, as she told the mayor during one of his public Zoom meetings on Aug. 12. At the meeting she was joined by principals of private schools in Springfield, such as Little Flower Catholic School and Sacred Heart-Griffin High School, which have opened their doors to students. Mathis has been a proponent of offering in-person options for students, especially those whose parents have little-to-no other options for their care.

The Boys and Girls Clubs operate nine sites in Springfield, and provide after-school programming to eight schools. In March, the programming was no longer offered in-person due to the stay-at-home mandates. "As the summer months started to emerge and day cares were reopening and we were moving through the phases, there was an immensely large cry out because day cares were serving at half their capacity. So you had a lot of people who had no summer options for their school-aged kids," said Mathis. She said the clubs will reopen to provide in-person care during working hours this coming school year. The nonprofit can serve as many as 1,300 kids a day in a regular year. "The main barrier for us is going to be accessing enough funding," said Mathis. She said additional funds could be used on alternative sites that have enough space to socially distance.

Child care is clearly a major concern going forward. Schools aren't day cares. But they do happen to serve in that function for many working families. Elizabeth Powers is an economics professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a member of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs who has researched the effects of the pandemic on child care. "The new world with COVID and social distancing has pretty dramatically reduced the number of children they're (child care centers) able to care for at one time," sad Powers. "Capacity reductions in Illinois, for example, range from 25% to a third, depending on the age group of the children."

Powers said this has economic impacts, and women often lose out the most when it comes to earnings. Women have historically been the ones to look after children. Child care centers made their entry into the workforce possible. Now, with the pandemic, "Different types of women with different types of jobs are facing severe disruptions in their work life and their ability to earn, due to child care issues."

It's a plan

School board meetings had been tense over the past month. Public comment periods have been full of staff and parents pleading their cases. During the special District 186 board meeting Aug. 13 to discuss whether to begin the school year remotely, Allison Acker, an elementary school teacher, spoke in favor of a hybrid option. She said she's not alone, and that teachers "were playing rock, paper, scissors or flipping a coin to decide who has to be a remote teacher. We don't want it. No plans have been made to divvy out this position." Acker said, "Those of us who struggle with technology have not been adequately prepared for this." The superintendent has said teachers are being trained on how to use the required technology and software.

Tammy Ziemba-Montavon, a middle school teacher and COVID-19 survivor, told the board in July she still has lasting effects from the illness. "I have no idea the damage to my lungs and if it will heal anytime soon." She reiterated what researchers have found, that the virus is not always detectable by temperature or symptom screenings. "Stopping the virus at the bus stop or school door will be difficult," she warned.

The teachers union had sent in several hundred questions to leadership, many of them heart-wrenching. Would the district help teachers who head back to the classroom create wills? What compensation could families expect in case of death?

At the most recent school board meeting on Aug. 18, Superintendent Jennifer Gill discussed plans and details such as meal distribution, which will continue to be available for district students throughout the year. Same as spring, every student who requests a device for learning will receive a tablet or Chromebook, she said. Internet hot-spots will be available. Students will log in for five-hour-long days, starting at a regular morning time. Three days a week will be independent learning, the other two will come with direct instruction. Information is on the district's website and communicated with families in a variety of ways.

Shelia Boozer, director of teaching and learning, followed Gill's discussion of the latest plans with, "Thank you for trusting us. We do know that spring was not the best, but we did what we could. We heard the voices of our staff, our families and our students of what they needed to make this more robust and rigorous so that learning can continue." Undoubtedly, more plans will come as students and staff continue to shift to accommodate a global pandemic.

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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