Wilmette Education Association president comes out against district’s plan, insists on remote learning.
After a summer of planning and meetings, the Wilmette School District 39 publicly released its fall 2020 reopening plans Thursday evening in the form of an hour-long presentation video. Even as Gov. J.B. Pritzker warned that parts of Illinois may be headed toward a reopening reversal as COVID-19 positivity rates and the number of new cases continue to increase, District 39 plans to offer full in-person instruction at its elementary schools and a hybrid model of in-person instruction and remote learning on its grades five to eight campus.
However, parents can choose to keep their kids home for fully remote instruction this fall if they wish. To do so, parents must complete a survey on the district’s website by August 6. Their decision will commit their child to that learning model for the entirety of the fall semester.
On August 3, Anne Rodas, President of the Wilmette Education Association (WEA) — Wilmette’s teachers union and local branch of the Illinois Education Association (IEA) — sent a letter to the District 39 Board of Education detailing the union’s disapproval of the fall reopening plan. Rodas wrote that the district’s plans show a “severe lack of concern for district teachers and staff” and that 80 percent of WEA members are not confident that the district can consistently and effectively follow proper health guidelines. Eighty percent of WEA members also insist that remote learning is “the only safe option for reopening school this fall.”
To create the reopening plans, the district put together a Fall 2020 Planning Committee and an Advisory Task Force to oversee the committee in early June. The planning committee and task force teams officially began meeting on June 15 and comprised over 100 teachers, faculty, school professionals, administrators, parents, health professionals and students. The planning committee created models in accordance with Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) guidelines, developing full in-person, fully remote and hybrid scenarios at each level and the ability for the district to transition between those models as needed.
District superintendent Dr. Kari Cresmascoli headed the Advisory Task Force and sent email updates over the summer to parents and staff about the planning committee’s progress. Cremascoli presented the committee’s plans to the District 39 Board of Education at their Committee of the Whole meeting on July 20, which the board approved. However, Thursday’s email marks the first time parents and staff directly received details about District 39’s fall plan, as the planning committee and task force did not publicly release agendas or minutes from their meetings over the summer. Cremascoli did not respond to a request for comment.
Having to make the decision about when or how it is best to resume in-person instruction in schools is not an enviable position to be in. There are many factors to consider, including ever-changing health guidelines, research pointing out the pros and cons of reopening school doors, and balancing varying needs and opinions. A return to in-person learning holds both many benefits for the students as well as many risks to those at the school as well as the community at large, which makes teachers, parents and community members wary about how to move forward.
The benefits of in-person instruction
Since the beginning of the fall 2020 planning process, the district made central its “aim to build in-peron student learning and connections as often as possible” while adhering to state health and safety protocols. Focusing so heavily on in-person opportunities may seem strange in the midst of a global pandemic, but it is widely held that for students, learning in person is critical for social and psychological development and is far more enriching than remote learning from home.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the CDC advocate for schools to make in-person learning a goal despite the risks of the coronavirus. The AAP lists that it is well documented that in-person schooling has academic, mental and physical benefits for kids, and some evidence already shows that children experienced negative impacts due to school closures earlier this year. Social isolation and an interruption of supportive services can have a negative impact on kids’ mental health, resulting in increased depression and suicidal ideation.
Socializing with peers is an important part of childhood development. The CDC states that social interaction with children of the same age at school “is particularly important for the development of language, communication, social, emotional, and interpersonal skills.” A study appearing in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that children who attend school show increased levels of moral judgment and cognitive skills compared to children who don’t, meaning children become more autonomous and learn to work with others better when they go to school and interact with their peers. Additionally, the CDC and AAP both found that for children in unstable households, more time at home can lead to an increased risk of abuse and food insecurity and a decrease in physical activity.
Axios reported that the effects of the pandemic are also felt unequally among certain groups. Lower-income students and students of color are less likely to have reliable access to technology and proper streaming capabilities, and wealthier families can afford tutors for their kids when other families can’t. Children in single-parent households or who have parents or guardians who are not or do not have the time to be involved in their child’s education can also fall behind in school more than their more privileged peers.
The risks of COVID-19
While in-person instruction is clearly the ideal educational model for students to be in during normal times, these are not normal times. The coronavirus has killed over 679,000 people worldwide, and the U.S. accounts for almost a quarter of those deaths. In Illinois alone there have been over 180,000 confirmed cases, 208 of which have been confirmed in the Village of Wilmette.
More concerning, though, are the uncertainties that still surround the virus. The long-term effects of COVID-19 on children and adults are unknown, and the data on the percentage of asymptomatic coronavirus carriers and the transmissibility of the virus through children and asymptomatic carriers are sketchy at best. A World Health Organization study from early July found that the proportion of asymptomatic cases ranges from 6 to 41 percent, and other studies have cited even higher rates of people who carry the coronavirus and show no symptoms.
Even though children often get milder cases of COVID-19, the lack of understanding about the virus’s long-term effects and the potential for kids to act as carriers is concerning. Especially for children who have family members with adverse medical conditions that make the coronavirus even more serious, returning to in-person instruction and interacting with their peers, even while following all the appropriate guidelines, is risky.
Kids are not always the best rule followers. It’s unlikely at best that every day, every student will keep their mask on at all times, maintain six feet of distance between others, wash their hands regularly and follow all of the other health guidelines. Given the prevalence of asymptomatic cases, it’s possible that a child could be a carrier and not know it. That child could then spread the coronavirus to others if they break a rule, even if most kids do follow the health rules most of the time. Research is inconclusive on just how transmissive children are, but considering how many person-to-person interactions happen on a single school day, reopened schools could become super-spreading events. It may sound like a worst-case scenario, but the worst-case scenario of contracting COVID-19 is death, so it merits serious consideration.
A return to in-person instruction also puts teachers and staff at heightened risk because they don’t benefit from the same protections from the coronavirus that children seem to. Those with health risks will likely have to teach from home, a teaching style that many teachers have not been trained in, and a USA TODAY/Ipsos poll found that many healthy teachers are also uncomfortable taking the risks. One in five respondents said they are unlikely to go back to school even if classrooms reopen. Under the proposed District 39 models, some teachers who are trained specialists will be reassigned as general teachers to accommodate the homeroom model at the elementary level, which is another area that some lack training in. Teachers may also have to juggle teaching multiple models at the same time instead of focusing on just one, increasing their work burden.
Additionally, in the event of tightening or loosening restrictions, the governor or District 39 may make the decision to reopen more or less as needed. The fall reopening plan was designed to accommodate switching between the three different educational models, but having a consistent routine is important for children. In what some researchers call an “epidemic of anxiety,” having predictability and familiarity in a routine teaches children good behaviors and allows them to feel safe and more relaxed, according to the Melbourne Child Psychology and School Psychology Services. The only learning model that is guaranteed not to change this fall is remote learning.
Local cases and stances
District 39’s plan also comes amid rising numbers of new coronavirus cases statewide and many days of positivity rate increases. On July 30, Pritzker announced that several Illinois counties were at a “warning level” for increased spread of the coronavirus. As of Saturday, the last 10 days in Region 10 have seen eight days of increases in the positivity rate and four days of increases in hospital admissions. If the region sees three more days of hospital admission increases or a dip in hospital bed availability, Region 10 could face more restrictions.
The Village of Wilmette itself has also experienced some recent local cases of exposure. On July 23, the Wilmette Park District closed its Center Fitness Club for a day of deep cleaning after discovering that an employee tested positive for COVID-19, and Glenview’s Flick Outdoor Aquatic Center shut down in early July after two lifeguards were diagnosed with COVID-19. Last week at Mather Place senior living center, an employee tested positive.
Many teachers unions point to rising case numbers and a notable lack of important information about the coronavirus as evidence that schools are not yet able to reopen. In her letter, Rodas expressed concern about indoor schooling even when following proper health guidelines. She does not believe that teachers can properly support a diverse population of learners with distancing guidelines and limited peer interaction, and she’s worried that possible absences, illnesses and deaths of peers and teacher who contract COVID-19 “will be traumatizing for both students and the community and will cause long lasting emotional effects for everyone.” She wrote that “a learning environment that is unsafe for one, is unsafe for all.”
On July 29, the IEA and the Illinois Federation of Teachers released a joint public statement also advocating for remote learning this fall. According to the statement, if proper safety measures outlined by the state and medical professionals “are not met, we will do everything we can to protect our students and those who care for them… including health and safety strikes.” Rodas’s letter to the district did not mention the possibility of a strike, but she did write that “the WEA will only support a return to school option this fall that is completely remote.” It is her hope that the district will replace its current plans with a remote-only start to the school year by August 7.
Recent national polls from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) and ParentsTogether of over 1,500 parents also show that many parents are hesitant about schools reopening. Sixty-three percent of parents said it is better to open schools later to minimize the coronavirus infection risk in the KFF poll, and almost half of respondents in the ParentsTogether poll said they were “not planning” or “somewhat unlikely” to send their children back to school even if it reopened.
In the KFF poll, parents of color were more hesitant to reopen schools than white parents, but they were also more worried about the negative impacts of school closures on their children, such as falling behind in school and losing access to essential services. As many of the polled parents recognized, sending their kids back to school in person is both extremely important and potentially extremely risky.
About the models
On May 5, Pritzker released the Restore Illinois plan, which includes five phases as a roadmap on how to safely reopen the state. Illinois entered Phase 4 of the plan on June 26 which is titled “Revitalization” and allows schools to reopen under guidance from the IDPH.
In creating the fall reopening plans, District 39’s planning committee followed IDPH and ISBE guidelines and designed three different scenarios: full in-person learning, partial in-person learning and remote learning. The released plans operate under the assumption that when school starts on August 26, Wilmette’s region, Region 10, will still be in Phase 4. If that changes, the plans are supposed to be flexible enough to allow the schools to “pivot without interruption” to a different model.
In the event that a student or staff member is diagnosed with COVID-19, the Cook County Health Department will be notified and the district will undergo a process of contact tracing to identify which individuals may have been exposed. Those who had “close contact exposure” to someone with a positive case of COVID-19 — which constitutes being within six feet of that individual for more than 15 minutes — will have to quarantine at home for 10-14 days and monitor their symptoms.
Elementary schools model: Full in-person instruction
The planning committee decided that District 39’s elementary schools will be returning to a full in-person model where students will attend school daily under a normal schedule, from 8:35 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. (except for kindergarten, which will have morning and afternoon sections). Students will follow rolling entrance and exit procedures and will be assigned entrance and exit doors at their buildings to minimize congregation.
As with every model, students and staff will be required to wear masks at all times and maintain a social distance of six feet apart as much as possible. Individual seating areas will be spaced six feet apart and facing toward the front of the room, and instead of intermingling, the same “homeroom” of about 16-18 students will remain together and in the same room throughout the day as much as possible to limit potential exposure and spread. Students will be discouraged from sharing materials so as to limit person-to-person contact.
Lunch will be eaten either in classrooms or outside when weather permits, and students will have the option of bringing a lunch from home or purchasing a cold boxed lunch. There will also be breaks throughout the day for bathroom use, handwashing, sanitizing and movement. PE will be held daily and outside as often as weather permits.
There will be no extracurricular activities or enrichment clubs in the fall season, but remote opportunities may become available. The district will offer before-school child care with new rules, and it is currently in discussion with the Wilmette Park District about options for after school childcare programming.
Grades 5-8: Partial in-person instruction (hybrid)
District 39’s 5-8 campus will be going to a hybrid model instead of full in-person instruction because the available building space does not allow for the entire student body and staff to return to campus and maintain six feet of separation from one another.
In the hybrid model, students will be assigned to one of two groupseither Group A or Group B, which will attend in person and remotely on alternating days so as to limit the number of students in the building at a given time. The district attached a sample student schedule in the presentation deck online.
On in-person days, students will follow their normal nine-period day with the same start and end times as before, and like the elementary schools, the same distancing, mask, lunch and PE rules apply, also with additional breaks throughout the day included. In-class time will be maximized for small group work, focused study and direct instruction, but certain classes, such as World Language, will be taught remotely even while students are on campus. The decision regarding music classes has yet to be made.
Remote days will follow the same schedule as in-person days with a mix of live and independent study as well as check-ins to keep students on schedule.
Decisions regarding scheduling for students with special needs will be made on an individual basis. Some students may be allowed to attend daily in person.
Additionally, like the elementary schools, all fall extracurriculars are suspended, but virtual opportunities may become available. The district has not yet finalized plans regarding childcare programming options on remote learning days and after school at Highcrest Middle School.
Enhanced Remote Learning model
At every grade level, parents can opt to have their children receive completely remote instruction for the fall semester if they wish, for any reason. However, parents have to decide by August 6. Whatever education model parents choose applies for all of fall semester; students cannot start fully remote and switch to an in-person model, or vice versa.
Surveys of parents and students conducted at the end of the 2019-20 school year and partway through the summer revealed that remote instruction last year was lacking in several areas, but the most common feedback was about a lack of consistency and expectations from remote work. In response, the district is rolling out a new enhanced remote learning model that aims to address those inadequacies.
The district’s plan says that remote learning in the fall will have clearer scheduling, instructional tools and expectations, curriculum and assessment, and information regarding special education and support for families. In particular, remote students will have a consistent daily agenda, daily live lessons and clearly communicated expectations, daily independent learning, and monitored attendance and work completion. Remote instruction will follow the identical schedule as in-person instruction with half of the lessons taught live. Elementary students will use SeeSaw as their learning management tool, and 5-8 students will use Schoology. Both groups will continue to use Zoom as their video conferencing tool.
New Trier District 203 model
New Trier High School will also be returning this fall under a hybrid model of both in-person instruction and remote learning with a similar opportunity for families to opt for complete remote learning. New Trier will try a new approach called the Trevian Block Schedule where students will attend in person twice a week and take five classes each day. On Mondays, all students will attend remotely and take all their classes.
Re: School Openings
This is incredibly difficult for everyone involved. The more we find out about Covid-19, the more we see how much it actually is spreading through children ten and up. They don’t know what the lifelong health issues the virus causes. There are individuals who need to learn to walk and talk again, others who needed double lung transplants, and neurological conditions as well. This is not the flu. This is far worse.
I worry what the social impact will be on our children. Gone are the school days when they are greeted with a smile, a high five, or a fist pump. Gone are the days of working close together in with peers or teachers. Gone are the days of chatting with friends on the way to class. Gone are the days of sitting in groups of friends at lunch socializing. Gone are the dances, sporting events, the pep rallies for sports, the theatre productions, the dance recitals, the academic competitions. Gone is anything remotely close to what we knew.
What is left is distance. Distance between friends and classmates. Distance between students and teachers. Distance between teachers and each other. Fear and anxiety are here. Fear of getting this virus and not knowing. Fear of spreading it to a friend, classmate, teacher, or family member. Fear of hospitalization and of death. Fear of losing both parents bc a child brought the virus home from school. Guilt that a child may need to live with from all of this or guilt that a parent may have when a child is hospitalized or dies alone. The grief a school feels when a member or many members pass away.
This is preventable and avoidable. Masks reduce the risk of spreading the virus, but not eliminate it. Disinfecting, hand washing and sanitizer also help, but not eliminate the virus. The virus can be carried through air vents and spread. Surfaces can be cleaned, but they can also be missed. The longer you spend with someone who is infected, the more likely you become infected and the more severe your case becomes. This is a huge difference between schools and grocery stores or gyms.
Yes, there are risks in everything we do. However, there is a level of knowledge and prevention along with safety precautions we can take with many of them. We have seatbelts and airbags, breaks, windshields, lights, turn signals, and technology to prevent crashes in cars. We look at family histories for risk of various cancers, heart conditions, etc...and can make adaptations to our lifestyle to reduce risk and can have screenings more frequently. We do not know the factors around Covid-19 to properly assess how to reduce the risk. All we can do socially distance, wear a mask, wash our hands, sanitize, and avoid activities with others until a vaccine is available.
As a NTHS and D39 alum, as…
As a NTHS and D39 alum, as well as a current D39 teacher, I support delaying and in person reopening until COVID numbers show consistent decline and positivity of less than 5%. We teachers are eager and aching to go back to our classrooms to be with our students as soon as it is safer to do so. While remote learning is not ideal for the long term, as I told my students, “this is just for now, not forever.” These times are not typical, and must be treated as such. As a colleague of mine put it, there is no prize for the first schools to return back to in person instruction, but there could be grave consequences for countless people. As numbers continue to rise, we need to react with an abundance of caution for students, their families, our staff, and our community.
As a NTHS feeder district, I implore community members, current and former students and family, to consider signing this open letter to New Trier. They will have thousands of students and 700 staff returning for in person elements of their hybrid.
Reconsider changing to full remote learning as so many other districts are doing!
Remote Learning Please
Please start the year remotely. It is so much safer for everyone. Funds can be reallocated from PPE and cleaning supplies to iPads for all kindergarteners or improvements on HVAC systems.
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