COVID complications: controversy brews amidst District 99 decisions for fall semester
August 3, 2020
The District 99 Board of Education is expected to vote tonight on what plan will be put into place for a return to school in the fall, amidst growing controversy within the community.
At a July 20 board meeting, the District originally proposed a hybrid plan for returning to school.
The plan would consist of two schedules coordinating with students’ last names (A-L and M-Z), with both schedules consisting of a combination of in-person learning, remote learning, and independent learning. To see the full hybrid schedule, click here and scroll to page six.
In a preliminary vote on July 27, the Board swayed 4-3 in favor of keeping remote learning for the fall semester. In the meantime, the District has announced changes to the original hybrid setup, resorting to one week of hybrid learning—mainly for students to meet their teachers and pick up supplies—with two weeks of full remote learning after. The goal is to return to hybrid learning after those two weeks. The formal vote taking place tonight will determine whether the District will follow through with this modified hybrid plan, or a fully remote plan.
Many students and teachers feel differently about how to return to school, for a variety of reasons. Here is a compiled list of answers provided by students and teachers, highlighting their thoughts about returning to school. Note that each number after each ‘A’ corresponds with one person’s consistent answers throughout the questions. These sources have been quoted anonymously to protect their identities.
QUESTIONS FOR STUDENTS:
Q: Do you feel safe returning to school this fall? Why or why not? If not, what would you want to be done differently?
A1: “Yes, I believe that the guidelines set out for the school by the State Health Department will assure everyone’s safety – students and staff. I’m also confident that students will follow these guidelines because of the severity of the issue.”
A2: “I do not feel safe returning to school due to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in our county. Recently, I have seen many students from DGN out socializing normally, not wearing masks or distancing at all. While none of them, to my knowledge, have caught the virus, this is exactly why it is continuing to spread. For everyone’s safety, I would have the school ask everyone to distance from others for one to two weeks prior to returning to school. I don’t want what happened to a school that recently reopened in Indiana to happen in our building, and I certainly do not want to lose any of my friends to a virus like this.”
Q: Would you prefer a hybrid schedule or a remote schedule? Why? Do you have any complaints/appraisals about the current proposed hybrid schedule?
A1: “Definitely a hybrid schedule. I think the proposed two-day-a-week schedule based on last name is the most equitable way to go about a return.”
A2: “Of the two, I believe that the remote learning option is better because it eliminates the risk of transmitting COVID-19 in the building among students and staff. If we stay home and learn remotely, people do not have to worry about wearing a mask/face shield for a half day and be uncomfortable. I think that, if we do go back, one of the only things I believe will contribute to student safety is the cleaning of the desks between classes and the use of hand sanitizer as well. On the other hand, I do not think that we should be able to drink out of water bottles when we go back because that violates the mask/shield policy and could possibly expose an entire classroom to the virus. I’m not sure how someone would be able to drink water without removing their mask.”
Q: In what ways is remote learning easier or more difficult than in-person learning? What things do you have to change when learning remotely compared to in-person?
A1: “Remote learning is definitely easier, but I don’t think that is a good thing. I felt myself doing much less work and learning less online than I did while in person. Online learning last semester was tedious, and in some cases I think kids would be more inclined to do work when they are in an easier atmosphere for it (i.e. classroom vs bedroom).”
A2: “Remote learning, in the spring, was easier for me because the due dates for assignments were really flexible. Most of my teachers would give us at least two to three days per assignment, which was a lot more time than what we would have had in-person. Most of my teachers did synchronous (live) classes on Zoom, making it feel like we were all together as a class while we quarantined. I think the biggest change from in-person learning to remote was the lack of paper that I was using. I probably printed a total of 3 assignments while we were learning from home, but I was definitely relying on my computer for a majority of my assignments.”
Q: If the hybrid plan is followed, do you expect to see issues from returning to school related to the district’s proposed health rules and regulations? Do you think that the rules that the district has proposed will be strictly followed/enforced?
A1: “I sure hope there won’t be any problems. Students need to understand that if these guidelines and restrictions aren’t followed, we won’t be able to continue in person learning. It’s a sacrifice I’ll be willing to make. As far as the enforcement goes, I’m thinking teachers will enforce the rules well. If they enforce the tardy tracking station for students 5 seconds late to class I’m sure they’ll have no problem telling a student to wear a mask properly.”
A2: “If any issues come up, I think that it will be because students are not fully following the regulations and are still socializing outside of school. Looking back to April and May, the reason why we were ‘bending the curve’ was because everyone was staying home and away from each other. Now that the world is opening back up, the numbers are going up as well and people hanging out outside of school could potentially transmit the virus. I think that the school will try to enforce the rules, but not everyone will follow them 100% of the time.”
Q: Do you have any other comments/concerns/complaints/appraisals about the district’s proposed plans?
A1: “At the end of the day, I believe the the district will do their best to assure everyone’s safety this coming fall, as that is what is most important. People will be upset regardless of the outcome, but that’s just how life is. Providing an opt-out plan for those who chooses to be fully remote is a good way to keep everyone happy and comfortable. I understand the risks of returning to school and I’m willing to give up what I need to in order to ensure everyone’s safety.”
A2: “I wish the district had started planning this sooner. The final Board of Education vote, which hopefully happens, should take place on August 3rd, which seems very last minute to me since school starts 2 weeks from then. I know they were waiting for advice from the health department, but they at least could have made an outline of a plan over the summer and modified it based on the guidelines.”
QUESTIONS FOR TEACHERS:
Q: Do you feel safe returning to teach at school this fall? Why or why not? If not, what would you want the administration to do differently to better ensure the safety of teachers?
A1: “I do not feel completely safe returning to school, especially in light of how contagious the COVID-19 virus is, and how rapidly it spreads in larger groups. While I do believe the administration has given careful thought to protecting student and teacher safety, there is no guarantee against transmission of the virus among students and staff. While the administration’s hybrid plan essentially cuts class sizes in half, the potential to still have 15 students in a classroom at one time is worrisome, especially in classrooms which do not have windows. Ideally, I would like to see no more than seven or eight students be in a class at one time, though I realize that this is logistically and financially problematic.”
A2: “The short answer to your question is no, I do not feel it is safe to return to in-person instruction. The longer answer is that there are too many unknowns for anyone to pretend that this situation is under control. Personally, my age and health do not put me at high risk, but that is no guarantee that severe and lingering symptoms can be avoided. More importantly, I have a family that I would be exposing to potential infection by entering school. My spouse works from home and my childrens’ district has decided to teach remotely, so they are in limited danger of infection, unless I contract Covid at school and bring it home. But, let’s put my personal circumstances aside. Cases in Illinois, and many other areas of the country, are rising, and it’s clear that not all people are taking the potential for exacerbating the situation seriously. So, while I feel like the district is taking sensible measures to mitigate risk (masks, cleaning and sanitizing, limiting population size, etc.), all of these measures rely on the general populace’s willingness to abide by these measures. At any given time, hundreds of people will be in the building at the same time. Despite the best efforts of all parties who are taking this seriously, it’s hard for me to imagine all people following guidelines as they should. Even if they did, there’s no way to avoid contact with one another during passing periods. Are students going to lower their heads and not speak to their friends? Based on what I’ve seen nationwide, desire to do what we want when we want far exceeds the desire to achieve some collective goal, be it elimination of Covid-19 or the resumption of activities dependent on that, like the return to school. Simply put, the best defense for this virus is social distancing. The very premise of a community school is in direct opposition to this remedy. So, we have to decide what we want. Do we want to limp along until we make the situation bad enough to re-close schools? Or do we want to delay gratification and do what it takes to create the circumstances necessary to safely reopen schools?”
A3: “Yes. The science is pretty clear that unless a young person has a compromised immune system, that individual up to age 25 has a very slim chance of falling prey to illness even if he/she/they has COVID in his/her/their body.”
Q: In what ways is remote teaching easier or more difficult than in-person teaching? What things will you have to learn/change/deal with this fall teaching both in-person and online?
A1: “Teaching all day in-person is very physically demanding – much more so than people realize – so remote teaching is less challenging in that respect. But, the difficulties posed by remote teaching are numerous, so it is ultimately more challenging than in-person teaching. For example, ensuring that all students are fully engaged is much more difficult with remote learning, and the inability to work one-on-one with students in a classroom setting is frustrating. Since my classes are heavily discussion-based, I will have to be very creative in how preparation for discussions, as well as the discussions themselves, can be effectively implemented. I will also need to become much more proficient with delivering remote instruction in effective and imaginative ways.”
A2: “The only way in which remote teaching is easier is that I don’t have a commute. For instance, under normal circumstances I can direct instruct a small portion of content, put students in small groups to work with/practice content, circulate and answer group and individual questions, and share out understanding in a standard 50 minute period. Depending on the complexity of the material, it might require another day. I understand that technology enables some of these functions. Anyway, functioning remotely, the interactions are more one-to-one. There are upsides to this. Some students are far more likely to ask questions in individualized settings. That is good. However, this also requires far more time. The result is a more deliberate pace of instruction. It’s hard for me to answer the last part about what I’ll have to deal with in the near future. Despite the district’s plan to reopen in the hybrid model, nothing is certain as yet. The expectations for in-person instruction, should it go through as planned, remain unclear as well. As it is likely that some portion of the student population will only learn remotely by choice, these will not be traditional instructional periods, unless additional resources are made available in digital format for those learning remotely.”
A3: “For me, the only things easier about remote learning are having no commute, and proximity to the printer, refrigerator, and bathroom. Some of the more impactful difficulties include the following:
a. ZOOM brings out the “celebrity” in a handful of camera-loving students but causes incredible shyness in a lot more students who are suddenly anxious about their faces being on display at all times. Ultimately this brings down engagement for the majority.
b. For teachers who read energy and body language to check for understanding or to sense whether a class is ready to move on, Zoom does not allow for that as well. One has to wait for those who are actually paying attention to raise the emoji thumbs-up which often happens whether they understand or not.
c. Technology is perhaps the biggest problem. Not only was screen sharing an issue, but the quality of videos drops. And learning new technology for the sake of remote learning is time consuming and frustrating for those of us who prefer activities and live interaction as a means of educating.
d. The most important difficulty is that I am a strong believer that education is relational. Relationships are built in-person and are built slowly in shared one-to-one moments and not while everyone is watching and listening to you on a Zoom screen. Class report is built by feeling the energy of everyone laughing together in one room as well as seeing and hearing the subtlety of emotions in voice or body language when an individual right next to you is sharing something personal. Shared experience happens in-person and together. ‘Remote,’ as in ‘remote learning,’ by its very definition means ‘distanced’ – period.”
Q: Are you being prepared thoroughly for remote teaching? On a broader scale, has the administration prepared you and your fellow teachers sufficiently for this fall’s changes?
A1: “No, I do not feel that there has neither been enough preparation for teachers to effectively teach in either the hybrid or remote setting, nor for the changes that are going to be implemented. The burden of this preparation is falling almost entirely on teachers themselves, and it is frankly overwhelming. I do not believe that enough training for teachers has been provided for how to use remote technology effectively – for example, going beyond the basics of holding a Zoom meeting with a class.”
A2: “As we don’t have a concrete plan yet, no. The district has offered training sessions on various digital platforms. This is useful. Likewise, staff members that work as technology coaches are generous with their time and expertise. In fairness, platforms and training are available, and most teachers already have at least some experience with a handful of digital tools that facilitate teaching. On the whole it has been left to the individual teacher to sort out. Regarding the hybrid plan, this was introduced to teachers within the last two weeks. No training has been offered, but the plan is not official as yet either. The biggest complication this past spring was a lack of accountability. This is no one’s fault. The rapid close of schools made for some difficult decisions. In any case, without the incentive of grade change, diligence waned. This, combined with other practical issues (students being responsible for siblings or work, for instance), made things tough for everyone.”
A3: “Thoroughly – no. But I do not fault an administration who has been dealing with a tsunami of changing countywide, state, and federal mandates, guidelines, and messages about how to re-open. Because of these daily changes, our principals and superintendent have been ridiculously busy crafting a balanced plan for re-opening and didn’t know from day-to-day what school was going to look like, so they did not know what we would need to be ready. Fortunately we have some helpful and forward-thinking tech folks like Mrs. Lichtman who started us thinking about tools we might need in the fall. Teachers will be learning these tools as they go this fall, so we hope our students will be patient with us as we fumble.”
Q: Do you believe that schools have been pushed to reopen too soon? How do you feel about the Trump administration’s threats to withhold funding from public schools if they do not return fully in the fall?
A1: “I think that the state of Illinois has handled the reopening of schools well, by not mandating openings and leaving it to the individual school districts. I am appalled by the actions of governors in states that are experiencing an explosion in cases, such as Florida, which demand that school districts fully reopen without considering the implications for public health. As far as the Trump administration’s threats go, those are empty threats calculated for maximum political benefit. The administration cannot unilaterally withhold federal funds from state school districts in the first place, and those threats do not take individual state needs into consideration.”
A2: “Yes, we are rushing to open, but I understand why. The services a school provides are multifaceted and nearly impossible for an individual to replicate without vast resources. From things as basic and necessary as food and shelter in a safe environment to counseling, instruction, career planning, sports, clubs, social activities. . . the list goes on. People want all of these things to come back. So do I. Those resources are valuable, and, particularly for the most needy, have dramatic effect on the quality of life. But that’s the rub. If the argument is that schools should reopen because of the irreparable harm being done to students learning remotely, how does putting them in a position to contract an illness that, even now, we have limited understanding of the long-term effects help? A recent study suggest that individuals aged 10-19 are as likely to spread the virus as adults. So earlier thoughts regarding the immunity of school-aged children seem to changing. All one has to do is consider the web of people one is forced to come into contact with throughout a day and then imagine them all leaving the building and returning home. I see the potential for much greater harm with reopening. Regarding the removal of federal funding for schools, when the president critiques the recommendations of the CDC citing nothing other than his personal opinion on what’s best for schools, it calls his credibility and motivation into question. It’s clear that the pandemic has had a staggering effect on the economy and the president wants to improve those numbers. Schools are a linchpin of sorts for many. They cannot work without appropriate childcare. That said, the schools did not create the pandemic, nor are they responsible for the current state of the economy. In fact, there are many that would argue that we’ve reopened too fast. Should we continue to barrel ahead in spite of the underwhelming results? To threaten to cut funding to schools that don’t open regardless of circumstance is irresponsible.”
A3: “No. Schools need to re-open. That said, there are students and teachers who have serious health situations that put them at risk who should not return in-person. We need to make accommodations to address their needs as well. Statistically speaking, healthy students have a greater chance of dying in a car accident than from COVID-19. As for Trump’s funding statements, I leave all that to the folks who get paid to do that stuff at the D99 Admin office.”
Q: Do you expect to see issues from returning to school related to the district’s proposed health rules and regulations? Do you think that the rules that the district has proposed will be strictly followed/enforced?
A1: “I believe that the main difficulty with the proposed health rules and regulations will be how to effectively monitor the health of students and faculty entering the building. While there is an option for families to self-monitor and self-report student health checks, I could see effective enforcement of this being a problem, especially among families with working parents/guardians who may be already at work before their student wakes up to go to school. This leaves that enforcement in the student’s hands, and students should not be placed in this position. I do have faith that the vast majority of students and families will try to adhere to the proposed health rules and regulations, however.”
A2: “I think the district is doing the best it can to follow the directives of ISBE, IDPH, etc. I do not envy them the task of retrofitting multiple buildings in an attempt to pandemic-proof them or to hastily amass the masks and cleaning supplies necessary to enact their plan. It’s a monumental task and one that school districts are being left to figure out largely on their own. From what I’ve seen, the solutions are thoughtful and in-line with recommendations made by experts. I do however have my concerns regarding the degree to which individuals will adhere to the policies as they are laid out. I can’t think of a single rule that is universally followed by all students at all times. In the best of times, when a student breaks the rules, our Deans step in to provide correction and discipline and we move on as a community. Sadly, the stakes feel a little higher now. Likewise, listening to the comments made to the school board by some members of the community also illustrated the fact that not all people believe in the importance of things like masks, social distancing, etc. Will that effect their adherence to these mandates? I don’t know. But it is certainly a concern.”
A3: “Relationships will not form as quickly due to the limited class time and face coverings. It’s hard to know the effect of your statements, jokes, and comments when you can’t see people’s reactions. I’m also concerned about blood oxygen levels, so we might see headaches and a few other symptoms that arise from wearing masks. With regard to following and enforcing rules, I think the level of panic and confusion caused by the mixed messages from medical professionals, politicians, friends, and family over the past few months has created a culture of vigilance and fear. Students and teachers will monitor each other as a natural response to their need for safety (as defined by their own research and/or biases) and their need for control of their surroundings.”
Q: What benefits, if any, do you think come with maximizing in-person learning? Based on your experience of teaching via remote learning this past spring, in what ways, if any, does remote learning make education harder for teachers and students alike?
A1: “Any teacher will say that an in-person learning experience is irreplaceable – remote learning is simply not a substitute for the connection teachers can make with their students in a physical classroom setting. Personal interactions between teachers and students allow for deeper examination and clarification of difficult concepts, a more engaging and energetic learning environment, and greater student awareness of a teacher’s concern for their improvement and well-being. These elements of in-person teaching simply cannot be replicated in a remote setting.”
A2: “This past spring reinforced the importance of in-person learning to everyone. I have not heard one person argue that remote learning is the best way. I could get into the thousand different ways that remote learning is more cumbersome, but I’ll focus on the positive in the case of this question. The soul of a school is in the relationships developed between all of the people who attend/work/study/socialize there over the course of many days, weeks, months, and years. The casual interactions that fill the gaps between instruction, study, assessment, practice and the like are the foundation of our school community. These are the things that we miss and they are difficult to synthesize remotely. That leaves us principally with the work of school. For students this is general study, reading, assessment. For teachers it means grading, lesson planning, attendance. And, while there are nice things can come out of those pieces for sure, I’ve never had a student seek me out express their appreciation for the rigor of one of my assignments. I assume they know I’m trying to help them stretch their abilities and not torture them, but that goes unsaid. Many times, however, I’ve had students take interest in one thing or another we’ve worked on, discussed, joked about, or debated. That interest, through a sporadic and continuous dialogue with me or a classmate, ultimately develops into something great for that student. Sometimes the product is academic, other times it becomes nothing more than a nice shared memory for the class. They are spontaneous, student-driven, and totally authentic. Seniors will come back to me as they’re walking out of the building with their ‘remember when’ stories and we’ll reminisce. The relationships matter. Digital platforms, even things like Zoom or Google Meets, just can’t approximate that element of the experience. They’re amazing tools for disseminating information, and creating opportunities for face-to-face engagement, but there is a certain rigidity to these platforms.”
A3: “Formation of real and stronger relationships. This leads to more engagement, more accountability, and more educational gains. And Increased social/emotional health is not just a small ‘perk’ during this anxious time. It is vital.”
Q: Do you have any other comments/concerns/complaints/appraisals about the district’s proposed plan?
A1: “I believe that the administration has put forward a good-faith effort to keep students and faculty safe with the resources available to them. One of my main concerns with the plan, however, is the ability for parents or guardians to decide whether their student will be physically attending school, or remain at home an learn entirely remotely. This will lead to a disparate and divergent learning experience among students in the same class, which is the last thing a teacher wants to see. As far as I am concerned, in order to produce the most equitable outcome, either all students must attend physically, or all students must go to remote learning – this shouldn’t be an either-or situation.”
A2: “I think everyone wants the same thing here: a return to normalcy. We have to decide how best to get there. Whatever we decide, a substantial group of people is likely to be upset. That is not to disregard their feelings. For all parties involved, the reopening of schools has serious implications. My hope is that we make decisions that keep everyone safe and speed our return to in-person instruction. My fear is that we will make some choices that are well-intentioned, but will ultimately yield negative and predictable outcomes while further delaying our return to normalcy. Whatever we do, I hope that the conclusion we draw is based less on what we want to be true and more on what circumstances demand. Finally, in the absence of clarity, I hope we practice caution.”
A3: “Two thoughts: first, I truly believe our administrators did their very best to construct a plan that allows healthy students to come to school if they wish, but stay home if they need. They understand that social/emotional health which comes from meeting and working in-person is just as important to the well-being of a young person as physical health. They understand that in-person education is far superior to remote learning, especially with regard to forming relationships and engagement. As I said before, they have navigated a tsunami of changing health codes, laws, and guidelines from every nautical direction to bring us to a place where we can feel safe and hopefully learn. Second, I believe that all of us need to be a lot more humble and courageous on a personal level and as a learning community to muscle through these weird times. This whole COVID reality is like a strange video game with invisible enemies – some are microscopic and can strike you or your teammates several weeks after you’ve encountered them, but mostly the invisible enemies are inside of us in the form of fear, doubt, confusion, and uncertainty. So how do we fight invisible enemies?!? Courage, open communication, team work, humility about what we think we “know,” and more courage.”