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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

'We Are Drowning': Parents Push Unit 5 For In-Person Learning

Sarah Nardi/WGLT
Students and parents protested Unit 5's remote learning outside Wednesday's school board meeting at Normal West High School.

Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle announced Wednesday night a planned return to in-person learning, saying the district hopes to bring students back to the classroom beginning in October “assuming that the metrics are such that we’ll be able to do so.”

But some parents--and teachers--said a lack of transparency around the decision-making process has left them with little faith that the district will keep its word.

Weikle’s announcement came at the beginning of a packed school board meeting. A mix of teachers, parents, and young students--some with homemade signs demanding a return to in-person instruction-- filled almost all of the socially distanced seats in the Normal West high school cafeteria.

Since early August, when Unit 5 announced it would begin the school year remotely, some parents of special needs students have been vocal in their criticism that children with Individualized Educational Plans (IEP) would be left behind.

But Wednesday’s meeting was the first where a broad contingent of parents appeared before the board to address a spectrum of educational needs.  

During almost 90 minutes of public comment, parents detailed the social, emotional, and academic struggles their students are experiencing with remote learning.

Several parents reported technical glitches and problems with district-issued devices that have led to students being kicked out of virtual classrooms, or missing class entirely.

Parent Stephanie Wood said her daughter is “on day seven of not having a working school-issued computer” and falling far behind in her classes as a result. Even with functioning technology, Wood said she’s worried virtual learning is moving at a pace that reflects an in-person classroom environment. She asked the board what will happen to students who can’t keep up.

“Will they be held back or pushed through the system?” Wood asked.

Other parents spoke of increased anxiety in their children and significant social and emotional regressions.

Chad Breck said his student is suffering from such extreme anxiety that he now sleeps on the floor in his parents’ bedroom.

Breck criticized the school board for failing to inform parents of the reasons behind its decision to switch to e-learning in August. Breck was one of several parents who said they were caught off guard by the sudden change and left frustrated by a lack of explanation.

“Shame on that lack of information passed to us,” he said.

Parents who echoed Breck’s concerns took issue with Weikle’s statement that the decision to go remote--as well as the decision return in-person in October--was driven partly by metrics.

Mollie Emery, who is the parent of an IEP student, pointed out that when the board made its decision in August, the county’s testing positivity rate was 1.8%.

“If 1.8% isn’t satisfactory, what is?” she asked.

The county’s testing positivity rate (7-day rolling) currently sits at 6.1%.

Teachers union pushes back

Many parents spoke in support of “fantastic” Unit 5 teachers, acknowledging that teachers were working hard in highly imperfect circumstances.

Lindsey Dickinson, president of the teachers union (Unit Five Education Association), said teachers are not feeling that same support from the board.

Dickinson said messages shared by district administrators to parents placed the blame for a lack of in-person learning on teachers who didn’t want to return to the classroom.

Dickinson said she wanted to address that “disturbing narrative,” telling the board, “On behalf of the UFEA, I want to first state unequivocally: We want to be back at school in-person with our students and colleagues."  

She said that while the UFEA supported the board’s decision to go remote, “the decision not to return was not made by us. And it was not made because of us.”

Dickinson said the UFEA is willing to work with the district toward the goal of returning to safe, in-person learning, but “we won’t allow the district decision-makers--administrators and school board members--to shame us or shift the blame to us.”

Unit 5 teacher Jim Rumps echoed Dickinson’s comments, saying, “I’ve seen an email and a letter on letterhead talking about teachers being responsible for the fact that we’re not back in school. And I want to make it clear to everyone here in the public, I don’t know those teachers.”

Parents of students with special needs were told at the Aug. 26 school board meeting that plans were underway to bring SS1 learners back for limited in-person instruction. 

But in a letter to those parents dated Sept. 8, Director of Special Education Carrie Chapman wrote that COVID cases in the county were rising and “Due to the staff concerns, we are not able to offer in-person services at this time.”

Facing away from the board and directing his comments to the parents, Rumps said, “We are passionate for your kids. We want to be back in school.”

Unit 5 PE teacher Brian Coupples made similar remarks, telling the board, “As teachers, we want to do our job. As soon as we can get back, it’d be appreciated.”

Parent Kevin Draeger summed up the frustration of Unit 5 parents with the conflicting information from the district.  “It sounds like the excuse has been teachers don’t want to come back, but where’s the evidence?” he asked. 

“Based on the survey the district sent out and what we heard from the teachers union tonight, everyone’s willing to come back.”

Draeger said it seemed to him like the district was waiting for “some made-up metric and random date in October” to reopen.

“Is there really a plan?” he demanded. “We can’t tell as parents because of the lack of transparency that’s happening right now.”

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