Daily saliva screenings. Ubiquitous face masks. Mounted projectors in every classroom. That’s part of the reality many students and teachers will confront once they return to classes after the winter break. 

The school boards for Districts 97 and 200 held meetings last week that offered those glimpses into what in-person, hybrid learning might look like when it starts, which is likely early next year for both districts. 

At a regular meeting on Dec. 15, the D97 school board gave the green light for administrators to set Feb. 1 as a target date for returning to in-person, hybrid learning. Administrators had presented an initial hybrid learning plan in October that contained a Nov. 30 target date, but that was scrapped in favor of a more cautious and open-ended timeline.

Parents and guardians in D97 have until Jan. 6 to indicate whether or not they prefer their students continue full remote learning, which has been in place since March, or want to switch to hybrid learning. 

The district has since made some changes to the hybrid learning plan that was released in October. In addition to the date change, the most significant change in plans has been  a live streaming learning format that allows teachers to simultaneously teach students who opt to continue full-remote learning from home and students who opt to return to in-person learning in the classroom. 

Eboney Lofton, the district’s chief academic and accountability officer, said on Dec. 15 that the live streaming format was a way for the district to address many families’ concerns about the possibility of their children being assigned different teachers than those with whom they started the academic year. 

When the district unveiled its initial hybrid learning plan in mid-October, administrators warned parents about the possibility of their students being assigned different teachers in the second trimester — a scenario some D97 board members said they wanted to avoid.

Lofton said the administration “heard from our community [that] we should privilege the relationships students and teachers developed at the beginning of the year” and that the live streaming proposal is a way of honoring the community’s wishes. 

Michael Arensdorff, the district’s senior director of technology, showed board members a video tutorial he and Lofton created that illustrates the live streaming model. 

All classrooms will have wall mounted projectors and speakers designed to minimize background noise while all teachers will be equipped with Apple MacBook laptops and iPads that they’ll use simultaneously. During instruction, teachers will interact on Zoom with students learning remotely at home on the projectors and they’ll interact directly with students learning in the classroom space. 

“These are similar things that [teachers] are doing in their classes already, but now I’m just projecting it in my [in-person] class here, as well as being on the Zoom with students at home [who] are watching the same thing,” Arensdorff said. 

Administrators said they’ll finalize schedules once they know how many families opt to return students to classrooms. 

Administrators at Oak Park and River Forest High School are also making some major technology adjustments and making plans to adapt to the pandemic era once in-person learning resumes. 

During a regular meeting on Dec. 17, the D200 school board unanimously approved a roughly $27,000 purchase of a remote phone system that will allow all district phone numbers to “run on an app on any smartphone or mobile device,” according to a Dec. 17 memo from Christopher Thieme, D200’s executive director of educational technology, and Cyndi Sidor, D200’s chief financial officer. 

“With the closure due to COVID19, physical access to on-site telephone services has negatively impacted the efficiency of the district to function in a remote environment,” they said. 

The board also approved a quote for the purchase of 170 video kits that will cost $117,130 and another $24,539 for additional components like docking stations. 

Each video kit includes a “high-resolution camera with a digital pan/tilt/zoom functionality controlled by a remote and a speaker with embedded noise-canceling microphones designed for a large room.” All classrooms will also contain a document camera that displays “both two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects.” 

Administrators are also researching two local providers of saliva screenings, which can help determine the probability that someone has COVID-19. 

During the Dec. 17 meeting, D200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said that Safeguard is one provider that is currently available, but it doesn’t diagnose COVID-19. 

“If a person were to test positive, they would have to do a follow-up test,” Pruitt-Adams said. 

She said Safeguard’s result turnaround is between four and eight hours, and costs $11 per test. Safeguard, she said, was developed by a Loyola University Medical Center physician. 

The other provider, Shield Saliva, was developed by the University of Illinois at Chicago and costs $20 per test. Unlike Safeguard, Shield Saliva is a diagnostic test, so no follow-up test would be needed. 

But Shield Saliva is currently unavailable, because it’s still waiting for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which the firm anticipates happening in January. The result turnaround for the Shield Saliva test is between eight and 24 hours, Pruitt-Adams said. Unlike Safeguard, Shield Saliva, because it’s a diagnostic test, would require OPRF to share identifying information with the Illinois Department of Public Health. 

Pruitt-Adams said both Safeguard and Shield Saliva have false positivity rates of less than 1 percent. She said that if the district contracts with a screener, administrators anticipate conducting approximately 2,900 tests per week. Safeguard would cost approximately $545,000 over 17 weeks while Shield Saliva would cost approximately $949,000 over that same time period, she said. 

The superintendent said the district won’t be able to utilize either screener before February. In the meantime, D200 administrators are relying on key metrics, such as the COVID-19 positivity rate for the school population, for Oak Park and River Forest, and for Cook County, to determine whether or not they return to hybrid learning — something that won’t happen before mid- to late January.

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