Less than a week after Oak Park Elementary School District 97 Superintendent Carol Kelley announced the district’s plans to transition from full remote-learning to a hybrid model involving a limited in-person learning by Nov. 30, the district has scrapped the target date in favor of a much more cautious and open-ended timeline.
The school board unanimously agreed at their meeting on Oct. 13 to direct district administrators to do more planning and community outreach before making a final decision on transitioning to a hybrid model, which now won’t happen until after winter break.
The board’s directive came after Kelley on Oct. 9 released the district’s Return to School Plan, a detailed 40-page document that had up until that point had been the district’s most comprehensive outline for switching from remote to classroom learning.
The administration’s plan followed months of complaints, both verbal and by email, from parents dissatisfied with the administration’s handling of the transition.
Many of those parents decried Kelley’s lack of communication about the district’s plan, as well as the lack of a firm date for returning students to classrooms. Other parents, however, praised the administration’s handling of a complicated, unprecedented situation, adding that the district’s remote learning needs should be considered in light of the fact that Black and Brown people have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19.
The district’s plan for returning to classrooms has been premised on state and federal health guidelines and the COVID-19 positivity rate in the Cook County region.
A weekly positivity rate of less than 5 percent is the state’s threshold for allowing students to return to in-person learning.
At the Oct. 13 meeting, Kelley said that, as of Oct. 9, the region’s weekly positively rate was 4.8 percent, which suggests “the data is trending in the right area; however, we want to ensure that we can continue to look at this method before making a decision on whether or not we can safely move [to in-person learning].”
Kelley added that the district continues to face the challenge of “reaching all of our families equitably” and said that as the district explores moving into a hybrid model, “I think it’s important for us to raise the question [of whether or not] the option might deepen the opportunity gap for some of our Black and Brown students.”
The superintendent said some families in the district live in households with elderly relatives who may have preexisting conditions. She said that, since families were allowed to choose between remote and in-person learning, students whose families opted for one form or another face the risk of being socially ostracized by the decision.
Kelley also argued that students returning to classrooms could affect childcare providers who are currently utilizing the facilities.
Most board members said that, in addition to equity concerns, they also had concerns about the district’s need to do more outreach to parents and the community in order to build enough information on which to base a sound decision on transitioning.
Board member Gavin Kearney said he and other board members have read hundreds of emails from parents who are on either side of the debate, but that the administration could stand to do more analysis of public opinion and of the various learning models themselves.
“I would propose that the board and administration develop a new process and timeline for back-to-school planning and that this be a process that reflects urgency, but also ensures that key questions and concerns are addressed,” said Kearney.
“I also think it should be a process that’s transparent and provides parents, district personnel and other stakeholders with the opportunity to inform and react to proposed plans in draft form before they’re finalized and before people are asked to make difficult choices based upon them,” he added.
School board member Jung Kim said waiting longer to make the switch to a hybrid model can be an “opportunity for more engagement and transparency,” adding that some schools, such as New Trier High School, have already had to pause in-person learning due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.
“We’re in the social media chats, we’re listening, we’re reading your emails,” said board member Cheree Moore. “There’s no easy solution to this. A lot of us moved to Oak Park for the diversity, for the equity. The way things are settling now, we would have very segregated schools. Dr. Kelley has pointed this out. If you’re a person who values equity, we have to think about this plan as many Black and Brown families are not comfortable returning to schools.”
Board member Rob Breymaier said the hybrid model “is a little bit more of the worse of both worlds than it is the best of both worlds,” adding that until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine, “I think it’s foolhardy to consider a hybrid plan beyond special education” and other specialized programs.
Board President Keecia Broy addressed concerns that she said the board was hearing from many parents about the possibility of students not having their usual teachers or not being at their home school.
When the district released the Return to School Plan last week, they were careful to point out that there was no guarantee students would attend classes at their home school in a hybrid model.
On Oct. 13, Broy said the possibility of students having different teachers or being moved from their schools has, from her perspective, been “off-limits.”
“I can’t say that [the possibilities won’t be discussed], but there’s not a strong appetite for that,” she said, particularly considering that students’ social and emotional needs heightened amid the pandemic.
“There’s constantly that anxiety among parents,” Breymaier said. “Worrying that their students will change teachers.”
In a statement on Oct. 14, Kelley said a town hall scheduled for Oct. 19 has been postponed until further notice, but that the administration plans to “carefully review” the roughly 200 questions that they received from parents and community members related to the transition.
In its announcement last week, D97 administrators said parents would need to indicate their preference for either hybrid or remote learning by Oct. 20. With the board’s decision on Oct. 13, however, that’s no longer necessary.