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Rural, Private Schools Ask For Patience, Grace As They Reopen During Pandemic

Students wearing masks in front of school building
Heyworth School District
The Heyworth School District is one of several McLean County school districts to open for in-person instruction this fall.

District 87 and Unit 5 started the school year online because of increased COVID-19 spread in the Twin City community and region.
But most schools in McLean County have brought students back to the classroom for the first time since March. School leaders maintain their schools are safe, but they can shift to virtual learning quickly if they must.

Dale Lempa portrait
Credit Calvary Christian Academy
Dale Lempa, Head of School at Calvary Christian Academy in Normal, said the school doesn't have enough staffing to manage in-person and remote learning at the same time

Managing coronavirus concerns in school can be difficult. Dale Lempa is the new head of school at Calvary Christian Academy in Normal. Lempa said when parents and students came to a back-to-school event, most wore masks, but some did not.

“We encouraged it, but we didn’t strictly require it,” Lempa said. “We didn’t have bouncers at the doors checking it just because it was an evening event.”

At least one parent complained and pulled their student out over a concern the school did not follow health guidance. Lempa said Calvary takes the pandemic seriously. The academy requires masks and social distancing in school. The school does not offer a remote option.

“We just didn’t have the personnel to be able to run both concurrently, but our teachers are ready to go remote at a moment’s notice,” Lempa said.

Private school leaders in McLean County said they are better prepared to move online than they were last March.

At Cornerstone Christian Academy in Bloomington, Head of School Beth Sondgeroth said the school is using more technology in the classroom to make a virtual shift easier. She said that will help students keep up with schoolwork if the student or school needs to quarantine.

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) said students and staff who show COVID-19 symptoms should get tested. Those who test positive have to isolate for 10 days. Those who test negative must be symptom-free before returning to school. Waiting for test results can take days.

Cornerstone does offer a full remote option. Sondgeroth said 3% of students will start online. She said the most critical part of Cornerstone's COVID response plan is prayer.

“We are just asking that we have low-to-no incidents (of COVID), which is a very bold prayer to pray when we watch what is going on worldwide,” Sondgeroth said. “We don’t want to live in fear, but we don’t want to be foolish.”

Central Catholic High School in Bloomington didn't have a choice about whether to reopen. The Catholic Diocese in Peoria required all of its schools to reopen and to offer a virtual option. CCHS Principal Sean Foster said he's grateful the kids are back in the classroom.

“There’s really an excitement in the building,” Foster said. “It’s been since March that we’ve been able to see the students and that’s why we are here. It’s for the students.”

If a Central Catholic student contracts the coronavirus or shows symptoms, Foster said the school can easily move them online with a video conferencing program set up in every classroom.

“In the meantime, that student, rather than missing school the whole time, they can easily transfer to the remote option and then that way, we really don’t skip a beat with them,” Foster said.

Nearly 20 Central Catholic High School students now use the virtual learning option.

Public zchools reopening

It's not just private schools that have reopened for the fall. Smaller, rural communities outside Bloomington-Normal generally have lower COVID infection rates than urban areas. Those schools have reopened with in-person teaching.

Heyworth school Superintendent Lisa Taylor said for in-school instruction to work, students and teachers have to follow health guidelines. She doesn't think that will be a problem.

“Face masks are not our biggest challenge at this point, it’s working through the details of social distancing during passing periods and meal time, and things like that,” Taylor said.

Taylor and the other school leaders said they will shift to remote learning if necessary--whether it's for a few days for contact tracing, or indefinitely because of an outbreak. They all said they will rely on guidance from the McLean County Health Department (MCHD) and COVID data for their schools and their communities.

Taylor said there's no specific number of cases or absences that will guide Heyworth's plans, but school leaders will know when it's time.

“When are we not being effective in person? When have we tipped that point in that too many kids or too many teachers are at home in quarantine and we really need to move to remote,” Taylor said.

School leaders said they have planned for a range of possibilities to keep students healthy and learning.  Sondgeroth at Cornerstone Christian said she doesn't want to hurt student progress with another school shutdown, but she acknowledged safety must be the priority.

“We don’t ever want that deep desire to override what’s wise and what’s prudent and what’s best for everyone,” Sondgeroth said. “I do think a lot of us have lost sleep at night thinking about are we making the right decisions.”

She and other educators said regardless of the adjustments schools have to make this year, it will take grace and patience to make it work.

Unit 5 and District 87 could go back to in-person instruction as early as October, but District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly said he doesn't want to consider bringing kids back into the classroom until COVID-19 is nearly gone. 

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.
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