District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly told school board members Wednesday night he wants to see substantial progress in the region’s COVID-19 response and caseload before he would consider reopening schools for in-class instruction.
“We want to see (coronavirus) cases virtually down to nothing,” Reilly said. “We want to see the positivity rate extremely low, hospitalizations pretty much zero.”
Reilly presented the district’s "Return to Learn" plan at the regular board meeting. It calls for 2.5 hours of daily online, real-time instruction for each student when classes begin Aug. 24. He said the district plans to send more detailed plans to parents Thursday afternoon.
Last week, the district cited rising active caseloads and higher positivity rates in the region in shifting to virtual learning.
McLean County saw a sharp rise in cases in July, though hospitalizations have remained low. As of Wednesday, one COVID-19 patient was hospitalized.
While McLean County's positivity rate stands at 2.1%, the region's positivity rate has topped 5% in recent days.
The district plans to reassess virtual learning in mid-October. Reilly said he also will rely on guidance from the McLean County Health Department (MCHD) and will consult with Unit 5 officials.
“My hope is that we are going to get to a point where we have a viable treatment, one that’s widely available, then we are going to be back in-person. When that can happen, I certainly don’t pretend to have any inkling of that, but we really need to get to a place where (COVID-19) virtually doesn’t exist,” Reilly said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said it’s unlikely a COVID-19 vaccine could be produced before the beginning of 2021.
Reilly said he would consider a staggered approach to returning students to the classroom, perhaps by adding several classes per day.
District 87 teachers will work from their classrooms for the first two weeks (starting with staff institute week on Aug. 17) as students learn from home for teachers’ professional development and technical support.
District 87 is preparing for what could be a tough year financially and the pandemic could make it worse.
Chief Financial Officer Colin Manahan presented a budget plan to the school board on Wednesday that sets aside $413,300 for COVID-related expenses.
“The COVID effects will have a negative impact on us,” he said. “In terms of cleaning supplies and possibly (custodial) staff we’ll need to hire to be able to do the things we need to do to ensure our buildings are disinfected and are as safe as possible.”
Manahan said the district will see some lower utility costs as the fall semester begins online, but the district is still serving and transporting meals to students and will lose some revenue from sporting events being canceled.
The budget plan is nearly $4 million in the red, including a $2.1 million shortfall in the education fund that covers the bulk of the district’s expenses, including teacher salaries. Manahan said that's largely because of flat tax revenue and federal funding projections.
“This budget process all is centered around one word: uncertainty,” Manahan said.
Manahan added the district hasn't cut staff this year. He said the district is prepared to spend cash reserves to plug the deficit, but he noted the district projected a $2.8 million deficit last year and ended up with a surplus of nearly $481,000. The federal CARES Act provided $1.6 million, which he said helped account for part of the gap along with pandemic-related cost savings in utilities, technology and substitute teachers.
The district also projects a $1.17 million cut in state corporate presonal property replacement taxes due to the pandemic.
The budget calls for 2.8% pay raises for teachers, 2.5% for paraprofessionals and 2% for custodians and all other employees.
The school board is expected to adopt the budget after a public hearing on Sept. 23. A tax levy hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 9.
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