District 87 parents have said the remote learning experience has generally been good, except for those with young children.
Superintendent Barry Reilly said that's one of the reasons the district plans to phase in a return to in-school instruction starting in late October.
“Some of our families have had extreme difficulty with it,” Reilly said. “If you think about families where you might have multiple kids who are working in a living space all together at multiple grade levels doing different things, that’s pretty difficult.”
Students will be in class two days each week on alternating schedules to allow for social distancing.
Children in pre-kindergarten through second grade will have the in-school option starting Oct. 26. Grades three through five will return on Nov. 9.
Each student will have one day a week for remote learning and two days per week of asynchronous learning at home. Families can still choose all-remote learning.
Reilly said the hybrid learning model has shown to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the classroom.
“As I talk to colleagues who have been in session for several weeks, that’s where they have had the success,” Reilly said. “They’ve done hybrid models where they limit the number of students in classrooms such that you can space them apart appropriately.”
Reilly said in that model it’s likely that a positive coronavirus case wouldn’t require a large-scale quarantine.
Reilly said social distancing becomes harder for junior high and high school students who would be using hallways to get from class to class. Reilly said the district doesn't have a return plan yet for grades six through 12.
Reilly explained the results of the hybrid model in other schools, coupled with improved local COVID-19 testing positivity rates, were major factors in his plan to bring students back into the classroom.
“The numbers are in good place right now. That’s not to say that they couldn’t change,” Reilly conceded. He said in August COVID cases should be down to "near nothing" before he would consider a return-to-school plan. Reilly said now that teachers have had time to plan for a hybrid model that includes a full-remote option, he's confident students can safely return to the classroom.
As of Thursday, the seven-day testing positivity rate in McLean County stands at 4.1%. The daily percentages this week are the lowest they have been in McLean County since mid-August, though the county did have a record 12 COVID patients hospitalized at one time this week and the county has had four COVID-related deaths.
Soon after District 87 announced a return to in-school instruction, Unit 5 announced its own plan to return students to the classroom starting in late October.
The District 87 school board on Wednesday approved a budget that projects a $4.9 million deficit.
Reilly said the deficit is manageable and will likely end up being lower than what was budgeted in the $75.4 million spending plan for 2020-21.
“We are certainly going to pay attention to that as we plan for the future, but for now we can manage that and we’ve been able to do that in a way that does not have any significant impact on our property tax rates,” Reilly said.
The school board has approved issuing $15 million in working cash bonds to restructure the district’s long-term debt by taking advantage of a lower interest rate.
The district plans to draw $1.8 from its reserves to cover deficits in its education and transportation funds.
Reilly said he’s concerned how the pandemic could impact the property tax base long term, but the tax base has remained stable. He doesn’t see the need for budget cuts this year.
“My hope is to avoid that by being able to provide these funds for these what are hopefully shorter-term deficits, but only time will tell,” Reilly said.
The district will hold a public hearing and vote on the proposed tax levy on Dec. 9.
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