Will Santiago bought a house in the Arts District in Oak Park back in June. Earlier this month, he secured a permit to renovate the kitchen and bathroom. While he and his family wait to move into their remodeled home, they’re renting an apartment in the village. All of this while Santiago runs his small business, West Suburban Garage Doors, which has its offices on Marion Street in Oak Park. 

On Sept. 14, Santiago showed Wednesday Journal a glimpse into his daily routine, which involves managing his business, the remodeling of his recently purchased home and now, with Oak Park students still learning remotely, the education of his two young sons, Benjamin, 8, and Jacoby, 11. 

“This is a challenge,” Santiago said. “I still have to be a husband and grab a beer with friends every once in a while. I just have to figure out how to deal with this.” 

Santiago is among thousands of parents in the Oak Park and River Forest area who have had to adjust to a new pandemic normal in ways formal and informal. With both Districts 97 and 200 sticking with remote learning for the time being, many parents also said they’re growing increasingly anxious about how much longer the exclusively virtual learning experience will continue. 

For Santiago, whose wife is a nurse practitioner and works in Chicago during the day, the process of adjusting to this new remote learning normal has been rather ad hoc. 

“I was watching the Bears game with a buddy of mine who is a substitute school teacher for Chicago Public Schools, but they’re not using them now,” Santiago said. “So, he said, you and the wife should talk to see how I can help these two guys out. So, that’s what we’re talking about.” 

Santiago said that he’s part of a Facebook group for Oak Park dads, but isn’t particularly connected to some of the hyper-organized remote learning alternatives that have materialized in the Oak Park area, such as learning pods that consist of groups of young people who go through remote learning together, as if in an off-site classroom. 

Ginger Yarrow, the board president of Providing Instruments for the Next Generation (or PING!) — an Oak Park organization that provides instruments, music lessons, mentoring and other resources for students in Districts 97 and 200 who are in need — said that local institutions need to be particularly aggressive at reaching families who may be out of the loop when it comes to knowing about all of the resources that may exist to help give their children rich remote learning experiences. 

“We work very hard at the beginning of the school year to make sure potential PING families have information about our program, so that they don’t self-select themselves out of the program,” Yarrow said. “You might have a parent whose kid wants to play the trumpet, but the family will say, ‘We can’t afford the trumpet, so they self-select out before knowing we’re here.” 

Megan Traficano, Oak Park Township’s youth services director, said the pandemic has exacerbated the problem of youth substance abuse in Oak Park and River Forest. 

“I think a lot of youth are struggling,” she said. “We already see a lot of self-medication with youth, but I think now, with the heightened anxiety and depression that goes along with COVID-19, the social isolation, I think that we’ve seen a little bit of a spike in some of the substance use.” 

Dominique Hickman, a youth interventionist with the township, founded Girls on the Rise in 2017, in order to work with Black and Brown girls in Oak Park and River Forest on issues of self-esteem and self-image. 

The program has since evolved into an after-school group that’s embedded into the school day at both Julian and Brooks. Hickman also works with freshmen and sophomore girls in the area. 

Hickman said the girls meet during regular Zoom sessions that allow them to vent their frustrations — something that’s particularly critical seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I let the girls know that this is their time to just let your hair down and be comfortable, this is your space for you,” Hickman said. “They’ve already been in class for eight hours. I tell them to just take what they need, relax and talk about certain issues.” 

Hickman said that the group’s most effective coping mechanism has been journaling. 

“Every girl in my program knows that they’ll get a journal and they’ll get journal prompts and they’ll learn how to write things out,” Hickman said. “Most people don’t grow up learning how to journal properly.”

Hickman added that she also teaches her girls the “concept of learning how to ask for help,” which she said is a skill that must be cultivated. 

“Sometimes, you can’t run and tell your parents everything,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard. So, we teach them how to build a supportive network and how to have a trusting adult in their lives and how to identify one.” 

Yarrow and Hickman said they both lean on the school districts to ensure that information about their offerings is getting out to parents who need them the most. 

“District 97 has been a great partner for Girls on the Rise,” Traficano said. “They’ve been amazing.”

Parents growing anxious

While many parents lauded the district’s remote learning curriculum — acknowledging that it’s been a marked improvement over their experience in the spring —many also expressed growing frustration due to the districts not providing hard dates for when they’ll enter phase three. 

“I think District 97 is doing the best they can with the 100 percent remote learning format, but my main frustration is that it isn’t an appropriate way in the long-term for kids to learn,” said Mara Maas, a pediatrician who has four kids in District 97.

“I’m a pediatrician who works full-time outside the home and so does my husband,” she said. “Right now, we have our youngest two in Hephzibah, so they’re doing remote learning from inside classrooms at Holmes. Our middle schoolers are doing remote learning from home. We’re fortunate to be able to get them in Hephzibah and to afford a program like that, which I know isn’t an option for a lot of families. 

“But I don’t think it’s developmentally appropriate for kids to be getting their education over Zoom,” said Maas. “It’s been particularly frustrating for my 6-year-old, who has ADHD and cannot focus on those Zooms for a long period of time.” 

Elizabeth Thomson is a pediatrician who practices in Oak Park and the mother of five children, including three elementary children who previously attended Hatch before she and her family moved to Elmhurst. She said that she hopes District 97 will work more with local physicians to implement their phased approach. 

“Children need to be back in school both from an educational and a social emotional standpoint,” Thompson said. 

Elise Rehn, who is also a physician and mother of two children at D97, said that she and her husband have had to hire a full-time nanny to help manage their two children’s remote learning. 

“My daughter in second grade has fine motor, as well as visual processing challenges,” Rehn said. “Prior to remote learning, her [individualized education program] stated ‘minimize screen time.’ Her team at Holmes has been working tirelessly to try to accommodate remote learning, so that she can succeed. Unfortunately, learning over an iPad for a 7-year-old with my daughter’s challenges is completely ineffective.” 

Rehm, echoing Thompson, said that she would like for D97 to do more to tap into “the wealth of knowledge available in our community about infectious disease and epidemiology,” before adding that, based on Oak Park’s COVID-19 metrics, “we should already be utilizing hybrid learning.” 

Will Santiago said he also wanted the district to move to a hybrid learning model much earlier. 

“As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “we didn’t have a vote in this.”

Schools study COVID data for path to partial school opening

On Sept. 25, District 97 released an update on what it’s calling a “phased attendance approach” to reopening that “prioritizes the health and safety of our students and staff.” 

“This approach is based on a guiding set of metrics, which includes the weekly case count and positivity rate in our region,” said Supt. Carol Kelley. 

The plan is broken out into four stages and its metrics are based on guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Oak Park Public Health Department, among other authorities. 

Stage four, which is full in-person learning for all students, would require that Illinois be “restored.” 

The Illinois Department of Public Health defines this stage as being when “testing, tracing and treatment are widely available throughout the state. Either a vaccine is developed to prevent additional spread of COVID-19, a treatment option is readily available that ensures health care capacity is no longer a concern, or there are no new cases over a sustained period.” 

Stage three, which is partially remote learning with hybrid on-site programming for all students in D97, would require less than 70 weekly cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people and less than 5 percent positivity rate. 

According to Northwestern University’s online COVID-19 dashboard, as of Sept. 28, Oak Park’s weekly new case rate per 100,000 people is 71 and its rolling average COVID-19 positivity rate is 2.93 percent. 

District 97 officials said that the district is currently in stage two, which is “partially remote with hybrid on-site programming for specialized populations and programs.” This stage entails less than 150 weekly cases per 100,000 people and less than 5 percent positivity rate. 

Stage one was full remote learning for all students, which meant 150 or more weekly cases per 100,000 people and a positivity rate greater than 8 percent. 

Kelley said that on Sept. 15, “a small group of students in the district’s multi-needs program began receiving on-site instruction, interventions and support at Percy Julian Middle School.

“We are currently determining the logistics for bringing the next group of students (IEPs requiring 1:1 support and Early Childhood Special Education) onsite — tentatively by early October. The remaining groups associated with Stage 2 will be phased in after we ensure that there are no issues related to the health and safety of our students and staff.

Kelley said that while the district has “not yet identified a specific date, our planning team will be working toward achieving this goal by Trimester 2 as part of our phased attendance approach.” 

During a regular board meeting on Sept. 24, District 200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said that Oak Park and River Forest High School is also in stage two, which is remote learning with the gradual return of high needs students in September and October. 

Pruitt-Adams said the district doesn’t have a date for entering stage three, but is currently in the process of developing an advisory committee that will help administrators determine next steps for moving into that phase. 

Michael Romain

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