During a special District 97 school board meeting held July 9, district administrators presented their plans for reopening school in the fall for the more than 5,700 Oak Park students who attend the district’s 10 schools.

District 97 Supt. Carol Kelley outlined the district’s plan to reopen schools based on a hybrid model that will combine in-person and remote learning. Based on the plan, students will be split into two groups in order to reduce the density in district buildings.

“Group A would attend school on Monday and Tuesday, Group B would be onsite Thursday and Friday, and Wednesday would be remote learning for all students to allow for a thorough cleaning of all buildings,” Kelley explained in a July 10 statement, adding that special needs students will have the opportunity to receive on-site learning four days a week.

In an email statement, Amanda Siegfried, D97’s communications director, said that while the district doesn’t plan on “taking requests from parents for specific classes/cohorts, we are going to make every effort to keep siblings on the same schedule.” Scheduling, Siegfried said, is “one of our top priorities.”

District administrators announced their plans after conducting a range of community outreach initiatives, including two separate surveys administered to families and staffers between June 30 and July 6.

The family survey, administered July 1 through July 6, garnered 3,307 responses representing 4,995 students, or roughly 88 percent of the district’s current enrollment.

Roughly 66 percent of respondents said that they either “strongly agree” (33 percent) or “somewhat agree” (33 percent) with the statement: “I would be comfortable having my child(ren) return to school in a hybrid model (part-time) in the fall, if the state’s health and safety guidelines are met.”

Roughly 71 percent of respondents were either “strongly” (50 percent) or “somewhat” (21 percent) comfortable with allowing their children to return to school full-time in the fall, provided health and safety standards are met.

Some 29 percent of parents were either “strongly” or “somewhat” comfortable with returning to full-time remote learning.

Around three-quarters of District 97 families surveyed said they are likely to send their children back to school regardless of whether the district implements a full-time or hybrid model.

But district administrators ultimately determined that returning students to school full-time was not a viable option. Administrators said they anticipated that around 958 students would not return to classrooms full-time.

But even with those parents opting out of the full-time model, the district would still need to add 77 new teachers and classroom spaces in order to comply with the state’s social distancing guidance, at a cost of $5.8 million, Gina Herrmann, the district’s senior HR director, said at the July 9 meeting.

That figure doesn’t include classroom setup costs, expenses related to additional personal protective equipment, custodial costs and the cost of hiring more substitute teachers, Herrmann said.

Even more pertinent to their decision, administrators said, is the health and safety of students, staff and other personnel, particularly substitute teachers who tend to be older and thus more vulnerable to COVID-19 than their much younger students.

The district’s survey of 613 staffers indicated that half of the respondents “do not feel comfortable with” full in-person learning while 41 percent said they’re “willing to see how it works.”

By comparison, 67 percent of surveyed staffers said they “willing to see how” the hybrid model of in-person and remote learning works while 18 percent said they “do not feel comfortable” with the option.

Siegfried said the district will be able to accommodate the learning plans of students with special needs “based on families’ needs/preferences.”

Siegfried said the district is also planning to offer a “remote only option” for all parents who do not want to send their children back to school at all, but the district is still in the “early stages of planning and will need to determine the number of students who would be utilizing this option in order to secure appropriate staffing.”

Kelley said the Illinois State Board of Education leaves school reopening decisions to district superintendents, so no board vote is required; however, the district is still working on its reopening plans. And given the swiftly changing nature of the pandemic, those plans, Siegfried added, are subject to change.

“This plan is based on what is true today,” said Siegfried. “We know that the conditions surrounding the pandemic and the guidelines we receive from the state continue to evolve daily.

“Although we are moving forward with our plans to operationalize the hybrid model for the start of school this August, we are also working to develop a more robust remote learning plan for all students. Our movement between these plans will be tied to the status of COVID-19 and Restore Illinois (our current plans are dependent on being in Phase 4).”

More public conversation related to the plan will take place at Tuesday’s regular board meeting. For more information on D97’s reopening plans, visit op97.org.

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