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In-person learning returns to Bloomington-Normal schools amid COVID surge

Staff / WGLT

It's too soon to tell whether a local surge in COVID-19 cases will lead to any classroom closures in the Twin Cities, but employees at all levels are bracing for that possibility.

Both District 87 and Unit 5 school districts are set to return to in-person learning on Tuesday — and some staffers are already out for COVID-related reasons.

Data from District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly show 21 staffers have tested positive for the virus, three are quarantining due to COVID-like symptoms, and two unvaccinated staffers are in isolation after close contact to a COVID-positive person — meaning there are 26 staffers in the district who already are out of commission.

Unit 5 did not provide similar data to WGLT on Monday, but noted in a mass email to parents that staffing "shortages will continue and perhaps worsen in the new year due to the increased positivity rate and spread of the omicron variant."

"It is our goal to continue in-person instruction and maintain a safe and healthy teaching and learning environment," the email read. "However, it's possible we may need to temporarily move individual classrooms to remote learning should an outbreak be declared and/or we can not find a substitute teacher."

In Peoria, concern about the omicron variant prompted Peoria Public Schools to add an additional week to winter break, pushing the start date back from Jan. 3 to Jan. 10.

The Peoria-Journal Star reported that PPS superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat said in a statement that the district is "well-positioned to continue in-person learning at our schools for the rest of the school year."

Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle told WGLT that "while Peoria is delaying its start, that is the only central Illinois school district we know of making that decision."

"Each district needs to decide what is best based on their students and current situation," she said in a statement. "Unit 5 will continue to monitor cases and the impact on our schools as we have done for almost two years. While there is an uptick of cases in the community, we have seen minimal spread in the schools leading up to winter break."

Unit Five Education Association president Lindsey Dickinson said that while the union shares "the district's concern that an increase in COVID cases could, at the very least, result in increased staff shortages throughout the district and could lead to some classrooms or even schools not having sufficient staff to operate for full in-person learning ... there are no easy solutions."

"The most obvious way to address staffing shortages due to COVID might seem to be pivoting to remote learning — even if just for a classroom or in targeted ways where necessary — but it is not as easy as it seems," Dickinson wrote in a statement to WGLT. "We know that in-person learning is the best way to educate students. We all want to do that safely. We continue to need help and support from our community to make that happen."

Bloomington Education Association president Julie Riley shared similar sentiments, saying while teachers "share the concerns that recent surges may create staffing shortages," they "want to teach their students in person so long as it is safe to do so."

"I hope we can do that," she said.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.