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Unit 5 Outlines Hybrid Learning Plan, Adopts Budget

Last week, Unit 5 announced plans to introduce hybrid learning starting Oct. 19. Parents were informed of the decision via email and video messages, and given until Sept. 28 to decide to move their students into the hybrid plan or stick with remote instruction.

During Tuesday’s board of education meeting at Normal West, Superintendent Kristen Weikle presented the plan that will allow most students to return to classrooms two days a week. Students with special needs will be allowed to return four days a week.

Weikle said the plan, which is broken into four stages ranging from full remote to full in-person, was developed around a very specific set of metrics. In providing a clear and science-based framework for each phase, Weikle said the district hoped to eliminate any confusion around Unit 5’s decision-making process.

“I haven’t seen any other districts be very transparent and say these are the metrics that we’re going to abide by and here’s how we’re going to have to make decisions, rather than this is what we feel is right,” she said.

The district faced criticism from parents at the Sept. 16 board meeting for what they said was a lack of transparency surrounding the decision to begin the school year remotely.

The stages of the Unit 5 reopening plan draw from data and metrics outlined in the Restore Illinois plan, the Illinois Department of Public Health, and the McLean County Health Department.

But Weikle assured parents the district would not shift rapidly in and out of stages based on changing data.

“We’re going to need to be in one stage for 10 consecutive instructional days before we move to another,” she said, adding the district wouldn’t just “jump” out of a stage due to a relatively brief spike in COVID-19 cases in the community.

However, the Unit 5 plan does not allow for a return to full-time, in-person instruction until a preponderance of certain metrics are met. 

That proved to be a sticking point for many parents, who appeared before the board Tuesday night to express their frustration with the hybrid plan. Since the district announced its plans in August to begin the school year remotely, many parents have attended school board meetings to lobby for a return for in-person learning.

In comments to the board on Tuesday, many parents argued hybrid learning won’t alleviate the emotional, educational, and logistical difficulties of remote learning. For some parents and students, the fear is that toggling between in-person and remote learning--which itself involves navigating a mix of synchronous and asynchronous programming--will prove even more chaotic and stressful than what they’re already experiencing.

While some parents applauded hybrid learning as a step in the right direction, others urged the board to immediately return to full-time, in-person instruction.

Tom Brubaker, a Unit 5 parent of three students, each of whom addressed the board to ask that schools  completely reopen, summed up his family’s position, saying, “Metrics don’t open schools. Leaders open schools.”

Weikle noted that 21% of Unit 5 students have opted to remain enrolled in the remote learning plan. In closing comments, board member Kelly Pyle said board members hear regularly from people “begging us not to return” to in-person learning.

2020-2021 budget

In other business, the board voted unanimously to adopt the 2020-2021 budget that was presented by Unit 5 Business Manager Marty Hickman.

Hickman announced during the Aug. 26 board meeting the district would begin the year with a $12.5 million structural deficit. Hickman said though the deficit existed prior to COVID-19 crisis, it’s been exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic.

The budget has suffered due to delays in collecting local property taxes, Hickman explained. McLean County offered a grace period to home and business owners after the shutdowns in March.

The district also has incurred additional expenses due to the enhanced sanitation and safety necessary to reopen schools.

Board member Mike Trask lamented that many of the parents who are demanding that schools reopen immediately left the meeting before the budget discussion began.

To the parents who remained, Trask expressed both his thanks and his confidence that Unit 5 will return to full in-person learning “sooner rather than later.” But he cautioned though COVID will pass, budgetary problems will not, and the district eventually will need to find long-term revenue solutions.

“We have a great district,” he said. “At some point we won’t have the revenue to sustain it.” 

This story has been updated to reflect a correction. Unit 5 will return to full-time, in-person learning based on a preponderance of certain metrics. The decision is not based entirely on the state being in Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois plan as previously written. 

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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