Oak Park and River Forest High School students will likely start the upcoming 2020-21 school year learning from home while elementary and middle school students in District 97 should expect to be in class for a few days out of the week. Administrators in District 97 and District 200 outlined the tentative plans, which are subject to change, at two separate virtual meetings held July 9. 

During a special meeting, District 200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams laid out a reopening plan that calls for more remote learning next school year, but the experience will be much different than the remote learning that closed out the last school year, she said. 

“We had to confront some sobering limitations,” Pruitt-Adams said at Thursday night’s meeting. 

The superintendent said any in-person learning would be restricted by daily temperature and symptom screenings conducted by personnel, face coverings would be mandatory and building capacity would be capped at 20 to 30 percent of students on campus at one time. Pruitt-Adams added that opening for in-person instruction would also mean an additional $1.8 million in unanticipated expenses for the district. 

“As we confronted the constraints,” she said, “it became painfully clear that bringing students and staff back safely simply isn’t feasible.”

In an email sent to families July 13, Pruitt-Adams emphasized that the remote learning plans the district is developing for the fall “will NOT be what students experienced this last spring,” adding that there are some important changes ahead.

Those include a “set schedule of class periods,” “mandatory student attendance,” “a requirement for each class to meet via videoconference (such as Google Meet or Zoom) for 30-100 minutes per class per week,” “letter grades” and “academic support services.” 

The high school’s model diverged from that of the elementary and middle schools, with D97 administrators presenting their hybrid approach to board members during a special meeting held last Thursday morning. 

District 97 Supt. Carol Kelley said the district’s plan combines in-person and remote learning, with the more than 5,700 students who attend its 10 schools split into two groups in order to reduce density in the 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 said 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.”

At the D200 meeting, Supt. Pruitt-Adams said scheduling is a major factor that explains why the high school can’t as easily go to a hybrid model. She said that each of the high school’s roughly 3,400 students has their own schedule, meaning 3,400 separate schedules for administrators to manage. 

The superintendent’s recommendation reflected the work of the Reimagine Education OPRF 2020-21 Steering Committee, an entity that was created after the pandemic forced schools across the state to close in March. 

The steering committee mostly includes administrators. Sheila Hardin, an OPRF math teacher and president of the Faculty Senate, also sits on the committee. 

Pruitt-Adams said in a board memo that the committee “conducted two surveys of students, faculty, and families to get specific feedback on their remote learning experiences.” The surveys received around 2,400 responses, she said. In addition, OPRF’s Special Education department organized focus groups of 15 parents and staff designed to discuss their experiences with remote learning. 

Back in June, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that all regions of the state would enter Phase 4 of his reopening plan, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education released joint guidance allowing for local school districts to decide whether to resume in-person learning, remote instruction or a blend of both. 

Pruitt-Adams, along with other members of the steering committee, said that their research and analysis showed that a blended model would have meant significantly less instructional time for students and less instructional flexibility for teachers. 

She said the steering committee will work to “shore up the plan” before bringing it back to the board, which will vote on a resolution that charges administrators to implement a reopening plan and to make changes to the plan, if needed. 

Technically, ISBE had given superintendents across the state the latitude to make decisions on reopening without board approval, but Pruitt-Adams said that she wanted board support nonetheless. 

The district is also planning a virtual town hall to allow community members the opportunity to discuss the reopening arrangements before the school year starts


More on D97’s reopening plan

District 97 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 o the status of COVID-19 and Restore Illinois (our current plans are dependent on being in Phase 4).”

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