As River Forest School District 90 committed to reopening its buildings for full-time in-person learning next fall, school officials presented a whole host of safety protocols to the Board of Education at a recent meeting. Topping the list is D90’s plans to prioritize students’ mental health and wellness and continue to offer academic and emotional support.

The discussion surrounding these guidelines followed after the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) adopted a resolution requiring all schools to fully reopen by the start of the 2021-22 school year. The resolution – which passed last month with a unanimous vote – supports a declaration made by State Superintendent Carmen Ayala.

Leading the presentation on June 1, Communications and Community Outreach Director Dawne Simmons shared with board members D90’s four guiding principles: safety, equity, high-quality instruction and social-emotional and physical wellness.

When it comes to creating a safe environment, D90 relies on ISBE, the Illinois Department of Public Health, Cook County Public Health Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for direction. Even though the state’s COVID-19 restrictions are loosening, the district anticipates maintaining some of its practices, including making staff and students – vaccinated or not – wear masks.

Although many of D90’s faculty, administrators and middle schoolers may be vaccinated by August, its youngest learners “probably won’t be,” Simmons said. At this point, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is available to children between 12 and 15 years old.

Students are not currently required to receive the vaccine. ISBE encourages families to get their children who are eligible to get vaccinated and schools to host vaccination clinics to continue to spread awareness. Last month, District 90 held a vaccination clinic at Roosevelt Middle School,  administering shots to a total of 162 students.

Among other safety mitigation efforts, plexiglass dividers and social distancing signs will also remain on display in the buildings. Daily cleaning and disinfecting common areas such as classrooms and bathrooms will also continue, said Simmons.

Simmons also provided an overview of what classes will look like in the fall for students. She said students can expect to have assigned seating, which lends to meeting social distancing requirements. Lunch and recess will be staggered, and core classes such as math, social studies and science will take place at established times. Special classes such as gym, art, music and STEM will be determined by respective school principals, Simmons said.

During the meeting, Simmons and Superintendent Ed Condon talked about ISBE’s definition of remote learning. At this time, remote learning is only for students who are not able to get the COVID-19 vaccine and are under quarantine by a local public health department.

Students must meet both requirements to receive remote instruction, Condon said. He went on to say that ISBE’s definition poses a challenge for D90 since students between 3 and 11 years old simply do not meet the age criteria to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“What would that system look like? How can we ensure that [the remote learning] is as high quality as possible?” Condon said. “We really need to think that through.”

In a separate interview, Simmons and Condon said students who are not able to attend school outside of COVID-19-related reasons will not have access to remote learning. Those students will be considered absent from school, they said.

“It’s going to be a process for parents to readjust mentally,” board member Stacey Williams said during the meeting. “Remote instruction has become an alternative if let’s say a child wakes up with a headache, or they need a mental health day, or if they’ve been traveling.”

Condon agreed with Williams and other board members who voiced the same concern. As D90, like so many others, awaits Ayala to sign the declaration, Condon added they need to be able to communicate ISBE’s online learning measures fully to parents, guardians and caregivers.

Also at the meeting, Simmons said the district created a social emotional advisory panel during the pandemic. That panel, which comprised community members, health officials and parents, has narrowed down five focus areas to meet students’ social-emotional needs. Moving forward into the 2021-22 school year, the district looks to build a better relationship among staff, students and families and provide resources and support for trauma.

Closing the presentation, Simmons gave a couple more reminders. When staff and students feel sick, they should stay home, she said. And, with summer around the corner, Simmons advised faculty and families to follow the district’s travel guidelines, which align with recommendations from state and county public health officials. Working together to stay cautious, mindful and responsible is part of the district’s mission to bring staff and students back safely. 

“We are working to return our students to their rightful place, and their rightful place is in the classroom, along with their peers in front of dedicated teachers who provide high-quality instruction,” Simmons said.

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