The Examiner U-46 News Feed
Many answers pending as U-46 begins new year
By Seth Hancock
School District U-46 will begin the 2020-2021 school year in distance learning while changing the calendar as the Board of Education unanimously approved of the reopening plan at a special meeting on Monday, July 27 which was held electronically due to the COVID-19 shutdown.
The first day of school was moved from Aug. 12 to Aug. 24, and Aug. 31 for pre-school. The last day of school is now June 2, 2021.
Despite the administration admitting it has no answers to most questions, the board offered nothing but praise for the plan.
“I do regret that we didn’t get into more detail in the plans around secondary, especially high school students…. We still have a lot of unanswered questions, even as we sit here before the board today,” said Superintendent Tony Sanders.
Board member Melissa Owens called it an “impossibly difficult situation to vote on,” but praised the district for its “hard work” in being told what to do by outside agencies. That was a sentiment expressed by most board members.
The plan is for distance learning for everyone through the end of the first quarter, now Oct. 22 with the calendar update, and moving to a hybrid (mix of in-person and distance) model for pre-kindergarten through middle school. High schools will be in distance learning for the foreseeable future.
Owens asked about the metrics to determining when high school could be hybrid and Suzanne Johnson said there’s “some flexibility” within Phase 4 of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s reopening plan but “we do not have a plan to commit to that at this time.” Pritzker’s plans do not hold any authority according to a recent state court decision which found them un-Constitutional.
Regarding all hybrid plans, Johnson said: “We will reevaluate this during the semester.”
The approved resolution states the district can implement and enforce its plans and order “students, staff, parents, visitors and other participants” to obey U-46’s mandates, including mandatory face masks. It also states the plan can be modified “from time to time to conform to the requirements of, or guidance from, any entity with authority over the District” which it states includes Pritzker, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) and local health departments.
Johnson said the district is still drafting answers for frequently asked questions (FAQ), and its focus is on mask mandates and social distancing.
“Those two pieces are certainly guiding all of our work as we consider how we bring students back for instruction in that hybrid model,” Johnson said.
The reason U-46 can’t do a hybrid model for high school, according to Johnson, is because there’s a higher student population and “hundreds of course offerings” which is too “complex” for the district to handle. She said other school districts are planning for earlier returns to in-person learning, but U-46 cares “about the safety and the focus on safety.”
One of those schools is the Elgin Math and Science Academy, a charter school in U-46, which plans to use a hybrid model starting on Aug. 12.
The district plans to bring in small groups, even in the first quarter, in some measure, but “we are still reviewing these options,” Johnson said. She suggested groups to come in first may include early learners, English language learners, dual language students, those identified as needing support and program or department based.
Johnson said those groups will be determined by departments and programs, not “individual teachers.”
“Once we have a clear purpose and reason and objective, that’ll identify the who… by which time we then also need to work on operationalizing that ability,” Johnson said.
Regarding an assessment calendar, Johnson said that should be done “within the next month” and various metrics “we are still reviewing” and waiting to be told what to do be the ISBE, IDPH and local health departments.
Regarding actual details, Johnson said: “We are two to three weeks away from being able to provide you the detailed responses (the public is) seeking.”
The district is planning a completely virtual kindergarten through eighth grade academy with a completely separate administration and assigned teachers that would be online through the entire first semester. Johnson admitted U-46 has few details and it needs parents, who have asked for details, to commit to the academy before it can have details.
“We need your information to finish building out what these options look like to be able to provide greater details,” Johnson said.
Similarly, regarding specific programs, Johnson said: “Again, those types of details are dependent upon our families responding to the survey.”
Regarding what the school day will look like under the hybrid, Johnson provided examples that are “all tentative” with some a possible three cohorts in elementary school with two being in-person twice a week and one four days and four middle school cohorts with three going once a week and one three times a week with cohorts “dependent on the program or the needs of the students.” Online learning in high school plans to have 2 hours, 40 minutes of direct instruction a day.
Regarding extra-curriculars, Johnson said they “will continue to be reviewed.” Sports will depend on IHSA guidelines.
From students exposed to the virus to how online days will look once in the hybrid model and cohort designations for families with multiple students, the district stated things are being “finalized” and they need guidance.
Sue Kerr, the board’s president, asked about social and emotional learning and how the district will be handling students with depression due to the district’s plan, Johnson said “one of our other committees” is working on it but there were no answers on what U-46 will do.
U-46 has no intention of trimming unnecessary staff when asked about staff by board members Veronica Noland and John Devereux.
“We will work to accommodate our employees,” Sanders said of teachers who are afraid to return in-person. Ann Chan, assistant superintendent of human resources, said: “We will work with them to ensure that their employee benefits and their rights are intact and they are well informed so that they can make the right decision for them.”
Social workers and counselors “will continue to have caseloads,” Sanders said, and “we are looking at how we can redeploy staff” like dean’s assistants, hall monitors and supervisors.
At the July 20 meeting, when the plan was presented, public comments came in mostly from teachers who expressed fear of returning.
At the July 27 meeting, three public comments came in from those concerned with the district’s plan including a written comment from parent Agens Bajorek who stated the plan was “developed without any parental input.”
Charlotte Ward and Cheyenne Ward, both students, spoke against the plan expressing a desire to fully return to in-person school and opposition to the mask mandate as they provided supporting data.