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Town Hall: How Education Administrators Are Addressing E-Learning, Racism

Georgia Nugent
Breanna Grow
Illinois Wesleyan University President Georgia Nugent appeared on a panel of education administrators during a virtual Bloomington-Normal NAACP town hall Thursday night.

Education has been deeply impacted by both the COVID-19 pandemic and rising pressure to end racism. 

Local education administrators detailed how they’re responding to the concurrent issues during a virtual Bloomington-Normal NAACP town hall Thursday night.


Administrators shared steps they’ve taken to address the digital divide that’s deepened by remote learning during the pandemic. 

With so many students at home, schools rushed to provide them access to computers and reliable Internet. But government trade restrictions delayed the shipment of Chromebooks to both District 87 and Unit 5. 

District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly said the district distributed about 2,700 Chromebooks to students, but they’re still missing about 1,400 devices. The laptops they’ve given out in the meantime experience a much higher failure rate than the Chromebooks, Reilly said. 

Families with multiple students present a bigger challenge, he said. “So we’re doing things like providing headphones with microphones.”

Reilly said the district is now exploring ways to gradually return students to in-person learning. When that might happen is hard to say, but “We would likely start with our most vulnerable, younger kids first,” he said. 

Reilly said they’ll use the results from a recent parent survey to inform those decisions.

Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle said Unit 5 was able to deliver a Chromebook to every family that requested one. Both districts also distributed mobile hotspots to help families connect to free Internet. 

Weikle said Unit 5 will release its plan to transition to a hybrid learning model next week, “assuming all metrics stay stable or improve in the area.”

She said while the situation isn’t ideal for teachers or parents, it isn’t ideal for administrators either. 

Parents and teachers aired a range of grievances to Weikle and the school board Wednesday night. Parents detailed students’ struggles to adjust to e-learning, and the president of the teacher’s union pushed back on what she called a “disturbing narrative” that teachers are the reason kids aren’t back in school. 

“We really appreciate the hard work of our teachers, and recognize the extra burden that this has placed on families, and we’re doing our best to get our kids back in person,” Weikle said Thursday.

University High School Principal Andrea Markert said staff have been closely monitoring students' performance during remote learning. Not only are students now spending less time in class, she said, they’re also getting less one-on-one time with educators. 

Markert said when teachers identify a student they feel is falling behind, they offer one-on-one sessions with a tutor, typically a college student studying to become a teacher.

Illinois Wesleyan President Georgia Nugent said the university is taking a similar approach, leaning more on peer tutoring and embedding tutors within courses. 

Doris Houston, assistant president for diversity and inclusion at Illinois State University, said the university established a COVID-19 equity workgroup as part of its pandemic response. One result has been removing a cap on the number of times students could virtually visit with a therapist for mental health concerns, she said. 

Addressing racism

Panelists also shared how they’re responding to the ongoing racial justice movement and calls to end racism.

Terrance Bond is assistant to the president for equity, diversity and inclusion at Heartland Community College. He said in the past, when it came to policy-making, having good intentions was enough for Heartland administrators.

But after months of national and local protests, he said, “it’s not enough to just consider our intentions, but to start to really consider, what are those outcomes? What are our students experiencing due to the policies?” 

Weikle said Unit 5 is examining the materials used in elementary social studies and history classes to make sure they offer “multiple accounts and perspectives in history,” with a similar review of course offerings at the 6-12 grade  level. 

Markert said U High also is looking at the textbooks and supplementary materials it shares with students “to try to make sure that those marginalized voices are heard and true, accurate stories are told.”

Reilly said District 87 plans to bring a draft diversity action plan to its board for approval on Sept. 23. The plan will address not only curriculum, but also the recruitment and retention of diverse employees. 

Reilly said those aren’t problems that can be solved overnight. 

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and we have not figured this out,” he said, noting the district has participated in a minority teacher recruitment program for the last 20 years. 

Curriculum meanwhile “moves at a snail’s pace,” Reilly said. 

Houston said students at ISU don’t have the patience for that. 

“Our students ... are not asking that we make change. They are demanding that we make change,” she said.

Last week, Ashley Dumas of the #AntiBlackISU movement told the ISU Board of Trustees the university hasn’t done enough to address anti-Blackness on campus. The group issued an updated set of demands to university administrators that includes hiring, retaining and promoting a more diverse faculty.

Houston said African Americans make up just 3% of the university’s faculty. That demographic also is the lowest-performing in terms of student retention, she said. 

Houston said students’ efforts already have brought about change at the university: Last fall, ISU created a plan to engage the entire campus in anti-racism and diversity training, which the office of the provost is working on implementing.

Nugent told viewers she’s also seen progress at IWU.

Upon arriving at IWU in August 2019 as interim president, “my first priority was looking at the diversity of the faculty, the students and the staff,” she said, adding she personally stressed the importance of recruiting minority candidates to every department hiring. “Of the five hires that we made last year, four are people of color,” she said. 

Nugent said a diverse faculty is especially important for her institution, where people of color have made up 30% of the student body for several years now, with 6% identifying as African American, while just 1% of the faculty is African American.

IWU also is working to grow African American representation among students  by increasing the number of McLean County resident scholarships the school awards each year, she said.

Weikle said Unit 5 has been holding listening sessions with employees who identify as people of color (at 10% when regular subs are included) to collect ideas on how to recruit and retain a more diverse staff. 

Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.