Last week, District 97 administrators announced that they plan on transitioning to hybrid learning from full remote learning by Nov. 30 — the first day of the second trimester.
The announcement came after a swirl of controversy over petitions and rumors of protests as parents in D97 got more aggressive in their pushback against what they considered to be Supt. Carol Kelley’s poor leadership and lack of communication amid the pandemic.
But the parents’ pushback provoked vocal counter-reactions from some community members, particularly Black and Brown leaders in Oak Park, who lauded Kelley’s handling of the pandemic and said some parents’ aggressive demands to return students to classrooms teemed with white privilege.
Last week, before the district announced a target date for returning to some form of in-person learning, members of the closed Facebook group District 97 and District 200 Parents created two petitions lamenting Kelley’s “leadership and the lack of any plan for a return-to-campus learning option,” according to one of the petitions.
That petition, which as of Oct. 6 had garnered 138 signatures, stated that while surrounding school districts in places like LaGrange, Hinsdale, Elmhurst and Wilmette had either started the school year with on-campus options or had finalized “real-time plans for a transition” from remote learning to in-person learning, “Dr. Kelley and our School Board have had many meetings and conversations, but developed no actual plans.”
The petition cited data and a study to support that “statistically, there is very little risk to returning to school” before recommending Kelley and the school board “deliver a re-opening plan prioritizing young learners (K-2) by October 16th with a return to school by October 26th.”
The petition also called on the district to create a D97 Task Force that would “monitor and optimize our re-opening plan (integrated with reps from the D97 board, Teachers, Parents, Pediatricians and Infectious Disease Experts),” among other recommendations.
A separate petition created last week called on the D97 school board to issue a vote of no confidence in Kelley.
“Superintendent Carol Kelley continues to fail to share the strategy and an actionable plan for how District 97 students will return to the classroom,” the petition states, before lamenting “the severe lack of transparency, failure to support meaningful engagement with all stakeholders including parents, teachers, and staff, and incapacity to lead our children through this pandemic with a solution-oriented and proactive leadership mindset.”
Less than a week after creating the online petition, its author took it down after receiving pushback from Black and Brown community leaders, who also lambasted reports that some parents had been planning to protest at Kelley’s home. They also offered support for Kelley’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Amanda Siegfried, D97’s communications director, said that administrators were “made aware of a rumor that a group of parents were considering a protest,” but that those plans were never confirmed.
Mara Maas, a D97 parent and member of the closed District 97 and District 200 Parents Facebook group, said she was also aware of rumors about a planned protest at Supt. Kelley’s home, but that the rumors were unfounded.
Maas said that parents in the group “threw out ideas,” such as having their students not log into Zoom, because the parents felt that their concerns weren’t being heard by D97 administrators.
Maas, a pediatrician, said the Facebook group was started after the pandemic arrived and around the time the district reversed its original decision of returning to schools based on a hybrid model to full remote learning. Maas had helped draft a petition earlier this year calling for students to return to classrooms, largely due to what she said are the detrimental effects of online learning on students.
Maas said the author of the no-confidence petition posted an apology inside of the Facebook group.
“He said he didn’t want it to be a distraction to our efforts to get kids back to in-person learning,” Maas said, adding that she doesn’t know the man personally. “The fact that some people took his petition to have racist overtones — he was very upset by that and didn’t want that to be part of the discussion. That was certainly not his intent. I believe him when he says that.”
But Oak Park’s complicated racial dynamics had become a point of intense dialogue on Facebook not long after the no-confidence petition was created and as rumors of possible parent protests swirled.
Makesha Flournoy-Benson, the founder and co-president of Oak Park Diversity Council — a group that promotes equity, inclusion and diversity in D97 schools — wrote in a Facebook post on Sept. 30 that the effort “by largely wealthy families” to push Kelley and administrators to return students to in-person learning “is privilege at its best and it’s sick.”
“I’ve lived in this community a very long time,” wrote Gina Harris in a Facebook post on Oct. 1. Harris is a school board member at District 200 OPRF and also a climate and culture staff member at District 97. “What we keep seeing, these acts of aggression, whether they be personally directed towards leaders in our school districts, verbal assaults on people who don’t look like you, continued denial of white supremacy culture in our very midst, is at the root of it all and we have to stop. And call it out.”
Harris added that “the administration in our school districts are both led by Black women. There is zero doubt in my mind that part of the continual questioning, lack of respect and outright intent to harm is brought about by an underlying belief that stems from white supremacy culture.”
Oak Park Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla wrote in an Oct. 1 Facebook post that D97’s response to the pandemic “has been malleable — as it should be, with this ever evolving pandemic,” before adding that “instead of fighting the situation, we could work to protect those most struggling. We could work to create new modalities of learning for [special needs students]. We could create new ways of tackling the opportunity gap in our schools. We could demand that every child’s needs be met — not just ours.”
Some parents who were unsatisfied with the D97 administration’s response said that a series of communications Kelley had released on Oct. 1 and Oct. 2 had helped to ameliorate their concerns.
“Over the past 24 hours, a group of parents have questioned our decisions around opening,” Kelley wrote in a letter to families on Oct. 1. “Our team has been cautious, yet focused on plans that can be sustained, to prevent future interruptions for our families. Further, we’ve been consistent in our goal of providing in-person learning options for all, to the extent that it’s safe, by the beginning of the second trimester (November 30).”
Kelley said that “there are a number of moving parts associated with reopening our buildings — scheduling, staff accommodations, finalizing safety protocols, etc.,” before mentioning that the district sent a survey to staff members about plans to return to classrooms and that another survey will be sent to families this month to determine whether they prefer hybrid or full remote learning.
She added that the district has started a “phased-in approach” to hybrid learning. Last month, the district allowed a small group of special education students in the district’s “multi-needs program” to begin receiving on-site instruction and support at Percy Julian Middle School. And the district is working to bring in more groups, she said.
Kelley said that administrators will share with parents a “framework for reopening” by Friday.
“For now, we’re pleased,” said Maas. “There is definite forward progress. I’m definitely hoping that this Friday, we get a more concrete picture of both the plan and the timeline, but I do think having this is definitely a step in the right direction. A lot of us are happy with that.”
In her letter to families on Oct. 1, Kelley urged patience.
“I realize that many are anxious to return to normalcy,” she stated. “I am too, but I’m also committed to keeping all of your children and our teachers safe. All I ask is the same thing expected of anyone during times of trouble: Patience. Understanding. Grace. Our children are watching and learning from each of us. Let’s show them our best selves.”