With District 87 planning a return to in-person learning for elementary students, some parents think keeping the remote learning option isn't enough. They say the hybrid format doesn't sufficiently reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection and stunts progress kids are finally starting to make with virtual learning.
Meghan Moore has a daughter in kindergarten at Washington Elementary. She's also teaches at a private preschool where she saw how quickly COVID can spread. She said even though local coronavirus numbers are improving, it's still too soon to return kids to the classroom.
“We are entering our most vulnerable children, little tiny guys who can’t keep their masks on and sneeze out into the public anyway, into this atmosphere,” Moore said. “That’s not a good thing.”
District 87 parents can stay with the remote option for the rest of the year, and nearly 30% of students in grades K-2 plan to take that option. Moore said that's what she'll do, but she’s afraid her daughter may ended up getting a different teacher.
Tyson Mohr has three children who attend Washington Elementary. To him, the relationship between the student and teacher is fundamental to learning. He feels like his kindergartner is starting all over again.
“He was starting to get teary-eyed and just said, ‘So much is changing, I’m so tired of everything changing,’” Mohr said. “The idea that he’s not going to be with his current teacher anymore, it’s very hard for him.”
Mohr said kids were just starting to get comfortable with remote learning and were finally ready to start learning. And parents were finally starting to get adjusted to the new schedule. Moving to a hybrid format of two days in school each week, two days of independent learning and one day online makes child care an even bigger puzzle.
“The families who have found ways to make the system work, which based on the community surveys (was) a majority of us, we find ourselves needing to rearrange things,” Mohr said.
A District 87 survey showed most parents and students were adjusting well to remote learning, but the district said more young kids struggled.
The two Washington Elementary parents recently took part in an online chat with several dozen parents, and they said many of them share the same concerns. They suggest the district should just keep everything online for the foreseeable future.
Jamie Mathy is a Bloomington City Council member whose wife teaches at Washington Elementary. Mathy said he doesn't want to second-guess other public bodies who have tough choices to make, but he wishes the public knew more about how the district arrived at its decision.
“I wish they were more forthcoming on the information they gathered to get to this decision,” Mathy said.
District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly said he understands parents may have questions about transparency, but he said the district has what he calls an “army of people” who have a lot of experience and training in education.
“I understand parents can get frustrated when they don’t have all of the information all at once,” Reilly conceded. “That is one of the challenges we work with today. Some of that just relates to how quickly the news cycles (change) and social media.”
Some parents said they wanted to know who made these decisions and why teachers don't seem to be involved.
Reilly said teachers were involved in the school reopening discussions in the spring, at the start of the pandemic, but more recently school administrators have largely guided the planning with input from health experts.
“The only way we were going to be able to do this was to have a model that hits all of the recommended safety measures put out by the Illinois Department of Public Health,” Reilly said. “It’s really hard to do that if you have too many voices trying to make that work. I don’t pretend to know we have the right number.”
Reilly said no teachers or staff have quit since the school year started, but some have applied for family leave.
On the issue of child care, Reilly said the community has plenty of options, partly because many in the community can work from home. He said the district has shared them with families on social media.
“You would think during the pandemic perhaps those might be full and overwhelmed, but that’s not the case,” he said.
Reilly said the district has had a “handful” of coronavirus cases among faculty and staff and said most of those were isolated cases.
He said the number of parents wanting to keep their kids learning online is about what he expected, based on district surveys, adding District 87 will try to limit the number of students who end up with a new teacher.
“It is unavoidable that some are going to have to be with a different teacher,” Reilly acknowledged. “These are all District 87 teachers. They are all high-quality people. They are very good at what they do and they know how to build relationships.”
Meghan Moore said her daughter will manage yet another shift in plans, but she's concerned for those who go back to the classroom because they feel like they have no good option.
“I’m sure that my daughter is not going to crumble if she goes to a different classroom. It’s not going to scar her for life,” Moore said. “But the real issue is the exposure and the educators and the staff and the other children getting sick.”
Moore said COVID-19 hits close to home for her. She said her mother became seriously ill with COVID symptoms in January, before testing was available. She suspects her mom contracted the coronavirus.
Moore is leading a one-family protest. She brings her two young kids with her to hold up signs near busy intersections to try to pressure the school system to keep children out of the classroom until the pandemic is over.
“It sounds like a good idea, but if you dissect it, and if you think about the implications that it could cause, it could be a very damaging thing for our community,” Moore said.
District 87 students in K-2 will return to the classroom Oct. 26. Grades 3-5 will return Nov. 9, but the district hasn't set a date for when parents must choose a learning option. Grades 6-12 will remain all online for now.
Reilly said the district plans to have more return-to-school details for families of K-2 by late next week.
District 87 will be the last school in McLean County to bring students back to the classroom. Unit 5 plans to start in-school instruction for grades pre-k through 2, along with grades six and nine on Oct. 19. The rest will start the following week. Most other schools started the school year with a hybrid format.
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