During a regular school board meeting on Nov. 19, District 200 administrators unveiled a draft hybrid learning plan for the second semester that will govern how the district navigates in-person learning, assuming the number of COVID-19 cases drops to a level that will allow for students to return to classrooms.
Seeking to temper expectations, D200 officials insisted that even if students return to classrooms next semester, parents and community members shouldn’t expect anything resembling a return to the pre-pandemic normal.
“The goal of hybrid learning is not to provide the same type of learning we all knew before this pandemic started, when everybody was in full person,” said Greg Johnson, D200’s associate superintendent, during last week’s meeting.
“We won’t be able to go back to that until we are all, in fact, back in full person,” Johnson said. “The goal, rather, is to provide learning opportunities for kids struggling with remote learning whether academically, socially or emotionally. A hybrid experience allows students to have some personal connection with other students and to physically lay eyes on their teachers. Even if it isn’t the same as full in-person learning, this can be incredibly beneficial for some students.”
District officials did not give any hard dates for when students will return to in-person learning. They said that how soon hybrid learning becomes a reality depends on metrics established with the guidance of county and local health departments.
Johnson said the second semester will begin Jan. 11. He said the earliest that hybrid classes might begin is Jan. 19, the day after Martin Luther King Day, “to allow our staff and families time to quarantine or at least limit their contacts after any holiday travels.”
Officials presented a chart that outlines the four stages of reopening, which range from full remote learning, which is where Oak Park and River Forest High School is now, to full in-person, which assumes that everything is essentially back to normal and COVID-19 has been effectively stamped out as a serious public health threat.
According to county and local health department thresholds, stage three, which is the hybrid learning stage, takes effect if the weekly cases per 100,000 people in Cook County is fewer than140, and cases in Oak Park and River Forest number fewer than 100 per 100,000; if the weekly positivity rate in the county is less than 5 percent and in Oak Park and River Forest is less than 6 percent; and if there are fewer than six cases at OPRF.
At the time of the Nov. 19 meeting, there were 465 cases per 100,000 people in Cook County and 394 cases per 100,000 people locally, in Oak Park and River Forest, said Karin Sullivan, the district’s communications director. In addition, the COVID-19 positivity rate in the county was roughly 13 percent and roughly 10 percent in Oak Park and River Forest combined.
Johnson said that parents will have the opportunity to either opt in or opt out of the hybrid learning model in a survey that was scheduled to go out to them this week.
He said once students return to in-person learning on a partial basis, only 25 percent of the population, or roughly 850 students, will be allowed in the building at any one time. Students will be required to wear masks at all times and social distancing will be enforced.
Johnson said the district will start the second semester with the current 9 a.m. start time and will maintain that start time “until our metrics deem it appropriate for us to move to hybrid,” at which point the start time will shift to 8 a.m. Johnson said that once the 8 a.m. star time takes effect, there will be no going back.
“Once we make the shift to that 8 a.m. start time, that is going to be our start time,” he said. “We will not go through second semester with volleying back and forth between two different start times. Once we make the transition, we’re going to make the transition.”
Johnson said that administrators settled on the 8 a.m. start time in order to avoid “having students eat lunch on campus as much as possible.” He added that “we will still offer lunch for diverse learners and students in the building throughout the afternoon,” but explained that “the vast majority of students will leave the building at lunch time.”
District 200 officials said masks will be mandatory for anyone in the building, except for those individuals who have medical exemptions. In those cases, a face shield may suffice.
Responding to school board member concerns about the potential for racially disproportionate enforcement of the mask requirement, D200 administrators said that they’ll work with deans on strategies for ensuring that the mask mandate is enforced equitably and in a way that also ensures that the mandate is being followed.
LeVar Ammons, the district’s director of equity and student success, said that he and other administrators have been meeting with a student advisory committee to work out ways of drilling home the importance of safety protocols among students that are less draconian and more persuasive.
He said a group of student leaders and influencers have come up with the idea of creating their own messaging about the importance of wearing masks and distancing through a variety of methods, including social media campaigns and other peer-to-peer influences.
District 200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said that at least 120 people — including teachers, staffers, students, parents and community members — contributed to the draft hybrid plan, which administrators presented roughly a month after forming a 48-person advisory committee comprised of community leaders from a variety of different fields of expertise, including the medical profession.
A separate, 85-person advisory group comprising faculty, staff, administrators, parents and students has been meeting each week since May.
At the end of the day, however, it was the consensus of the seven-member D200 school board and a handful of administrators at the Nov. 19 meeting that perhaps reverberated loudest since talks of transitioning to a hybrid model have ramped up in the last several months.
“If parents are expecting it to be like it was pre-pandemic, that’s not a safe environment,” said Pruitt-Adams, referencing the switch to partial in-person learning. “But we do know we need to get [students] in the building, if at all possible.”
“It’s not going to be school as usual,” said D200 board member Gina Harris.