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'Where Are Our Benchmarks?' As COVID Cases Surge, B-N Parents Question A Return to School

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Ben Hasty
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MediaNews Group/Reading (Pa.) Eagle/Getty Images
Bloomington-Normal schools says they're enforcing safety mitigations, including mandatory masking for all students, teacher, and staff.

Kids in McLean County are beginning a second pandemic school year. And this time, they're heading back into the classroom amid a surge in COVID-19 cases tied to the highly contagious Delta variant.

But unlike last year, there's no remote option for families who want to keep their kids home. Districts last year relied on metrics to determine whether to hold in-person learning. This year, the State Board of Education says schools will not go remote.

That has a lot of parents worried.

Like millions of parents, Hina Gilani spent last year balancing work and remote learning. It wasn't easy, she says, but her family got through it.

"We knew it was temporary," Gilani said.

And as the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available and restrictions in Illinois began to loosen, Gilani was feeling optimistic for a more normal school year. But amid stalled vaccination rates and the emergence of the Delta variant, that optimism quickly waned.

"I hoped it would've been back to normal," Gilani says of the new school year. "But I have huge concerns."

Among those concerns are the health and safety of her four children, who are returning to full classrooms this year in Unit 5 schools. Gilani said she reached out to the principal of Northpoint Elementary where two of her children attend. While the principal was sympathetic to Gilani's concerns, she said, he told her there weren't really any alternatives.

"Other than, well, un-enroll your children and just homeschool them. And that's not an option for someone like me who, you know, is working."

Gilani works as a technical analyst for Illinois State University. She said she's fortunate enough to have the flexibility to work from home part of the time. So last year, when the district offered a choice between remote and hybrid learning, Gilani's family chose remote. Her parents were also living in the home, and her father was ill with cancer. In-person learning felt like too much of a risk. And while the year was far from ideal, the remote option allowed Gilani to keep her family safe and keep working.

This year it feels like she's being given a choice between the two. Gilani wishes schools would have offered remote learning for at least part of the year.

"Putting all the unvaccinated children together — it just seems immoral to me. And if we could've had at least a temporary option, I'm sure my work, you know, we could've figured something out (so) that they could be at home until they're vaccinated."

Bloomington-Normal school districts say they believe they can operate safely with appropriate mitigations until the vaccine is approved for use in children aged 5 to 12.

State mandate

Krystle Able has three kids in Unit 5 schools. She's also worries about sending them back to the classroom. But Able said she understands the complexities schools are up against.

Krystle Able
Krystle Able has three kids in Unit 5 schools.

"I think the school board is in a really rough spot right now. Because they know that no matter what they decide, if the state decides something else, they're going to be expected to comply."

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) in May voted unanimously to pass a resolution requiring schools to return to full in-person learning in the fall. Two months later, State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala issued a declaration mandating in-person learning. Around the same time, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) made a stark change from its previous position of recommending that schools remain closed. The CDC began urging schools across the country to bring back almost all students, and acknowledging the damaging effects kids had suffered after months of remote learning.

But with the emergence of the Delta variant and McLean County under a warning designation from the Illinois Department of Public Health, many parents wonder why the statewide mandate is still in place. And they wonder what will happen if case numbers continue to climb.

Able said last year, her family was able to ride the ups and downs of school closures. She works from home full time so was able to make quick transitions around her kids' schedules. And even though there's no communication from the district about what will happen if schools need to close this year, Able said she's still preparing for a shift to virtual leaning.

"I fully expect them to end up going remote again," she said. "So at this point I'm basically just taking it day-by-day, and also realizing, like, how privileged I personally am to be in a situation where I do work from home so I don't have to necessarily figure out last minute daycare like a lot of working parents do."

Child care bind

Many parents have jobs that can't be done remotely. People who work in healthcare or hospitality, for example, don't have the option of working from home if their kids suddenly can't go to school.

Melissa Breeden knows a lot of parents in that situation. Breeden is the vice president of education and curriculum at the YWCA in Bloomington. Even though schools are planning to remain open, Breeden said she believes all parents "should be prepared to pivot to virtual learning if things get bad."

"Similar to last year, it's good to have a plan A, B, and C. And I feel that we're kind of in that same boat this year."
Melissa Bredeen, YWCA McLean County

"Similar to last year, it's good to have a plan A, B, and C. And I feel that we're kind of in that same boat this year," she said.

Breeden said the YWCA is one resource for working parents who may need care for their children during the school day. She also recommends that parents work with other family members when possible to develop plans for a sudden shift to remote learning.

Heidi Zimmerman has one child. She and her husband both work with the developmentally disabled and in-person work is critical to their profession. Zimmerman said it's difficult to plan without clear communication from school districts about what could happen if case numbers continue to rise.

"Where are our benchmarks? I think everybody would be a little more happy if we knew what they were," Zimmerman said.

In addition to the stress of trying to plan for her daughter, Zimmerman worries about the health of the people she works with. She is vaccinated, but Zimmerman said her clients are "medically fragile," and with no option to keep her daughter at home, she's concerned about the possibility of carrying the virus into her workplace.

"My big fear is, you know, I certainly wouldn't want to jeopardize the health of anyone I support. We're supposed to be helping," Zimmerman said.

Krystle Able worries about transmission of the virus, too. As her kids head back to school, she doesn't see nearly as many mitigation strategies in place compared to last year.

"They are going to have 20-plus kids in their class, from what I've seen. They're not really having social distancing measures in place. They're back to using lockers again which is going to crowd up the hallways," she said.

Still, Able said she understands that with the state mandate in place, school boards are left with their backs against the wall.

"I think they do have the best intentions, and I think they do want to do what's best for the students. But I just think they're kind of damned if they do and damned if they don't no matter what at this point," she said.

And that seems to leave parents with very few options other than masking up their kids, and hoping for the best.

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