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In Rural Olympia District, Bus Limits Will Lead To Shorter School Days

Olympia water tower
Olympia Schools
The Stanford-based Olympia School District has more than 1,800 students spread across five schools.

The Olympia School District in rural McLean County plans to bring students back to school every day this fall—albeit for shorter days caused by limits on bus capacity.

Olympia this week became one of the first school districts in McLean County to announce its reopening plan. In addition to a long list of safety measures, the plan includes a 5.5-hour shortened school day and a virtual learning option provided by an outside vendor.

The sprawling district also is under new leadership. Laura O’Donnell, who was an administrator at Olympia previously, became superintendent on July 1.

“I’ve been in education for 26 years now, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an issue that is this polarizing,” O’Donnell said. “We have parents that are on drastically opposite ends of these issues with their personal opinions, specifically around wearing masks.”

Olympia is a largely rural district—the state’s second-largest district geographically. That makes busing key. Olympia will be staggering morning bus routes to ensure ridership stays below the state’s 50-student maximum threshold. The district also will add more after-school shuttles to transport students involved in extracurricular activities. O’Donnell said that’s an equity issue.

Around 40% of Olympia’s students come from low-income families—a larger share than even the Normal-based Unit 5 district. That made everyday attendance a “necessity” for Olympia, said O’Donnell.

“We didn’t want our parents to have to figure out day care for a couple days of week all day long. And we know a lot of our kids need access to breakfast and lunch,” she said.

There have been planning curveballs, O’Donnell said. Two years ago, Olympia hired Evanston-based Right At School to provide after-school care at its buildings. But just a few weeks ago, Olympia learned Right At School would not be returning this fall, due in part to economic concerns related to the pandemic and student headcount.

Olympia was fortunately able to line up the Bloomington-Normal YMCA to restart after-school programs, O’Donnell said.

Feedback from parents and teachers showed most wanted in-person instruction.

“We have very low incidents of COVID in our small towns. We’ve been tracking that. Those local metrics, in combination with our smaller class sizes, make this a viable option or us to return to in-person instruction,” O’Donnell said. “I realize in some larger districts, class sizes and the sheer number of students in the building at any one time would make that a lot more difficult.”

Olympia also is concerned about having enough substitute teachers for the new school year, O’Donnell said. Many substitute teachers are retirees who may not be eager to expose themselves to COVID-19 if they’re in a high-risk medical category.

To help address the concern, Olympia is paying its substitutes to attend training on new COVID-19 protocols. The district also may try to recruit college students to work as subs; that’s allowed if they have at least 60 hours of college credit.

“If we start having incidents of COVID, or teachers start having to be quarantined, or they’re at home with their own children who are quarantined, continuing to staff our buildings throughout this year and ensuring there’s continuity in learning, that’s my biggest concern,” O’Donnell said.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.