By Dermot Connolly
Now that the state has signaled schools can reopen for in-person classes in August, local school districts are working on plans to make that possible while still meeting Illinois Department of Health guidelines for preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Schools have been closed statewide since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, with classes held remotely through the end of the school year. The Illinois State Department of Education issued a 60-page document earlier this month with guidelines that schools can follow to reopen safely.
“We will create the best possible, safest plan for our students and staff, and the community as a whole,” said District 230 Supt. Dr. James Gay at the June 23 school board meeting.
He told the board that an oversight committee including himself, three assistant superintendents, and principals of Stagg, Sandburg and Andrew high schools is coordinating the work of 13 subcommittees to make recommendations “on how to best serve our students and staff in the safest and most effective instructional settings.”
The committees include administrators and representatives from the three employee unions for teachers, support staff, and food services. Explanatory letters and surveys were going out to parents last week, to get their input as well.
Gay noted that guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education, in response to Gov. JB Pritzker’s Restore Illinois Plan, is for school districts to prepare for three potential scenarios—fully onsite, fully remote, and blended remote learning. “Depending on the COVID-19 situation, it is possible that we would move between the above scenarios. We will be discussing reopening options at our next board meeting on July 13. Feel free to reach out after the meeting.”
Supt. Michael J. Riordan of Oak Lawn Community High School District 229, and Supt. Ty Harding, of District 218, sent similar letters to parents explaining what is going on.
“This 60-page document has been much anticipated and will go a long way toward answering critical questions all of us share about what the 2020-21 school year will look like in terms of in-person learning, scheduling, wearing masks, social distancing and other measures intended to keep everyone safe and healthy, while also re-engaging students in the learning process,” said Harding, whose district includes Richards, Shepard and Eisenhower high schools.
“Right now, we don’t have all the answers to those questions as this document was released to school districts at the same time it was released to the public. Therefore, we kindly ask for your patience as our staff thoroughly reviews this detailed guidance and implements the suggestions into our school’s own transition plan.”
Riordan said “Oak Lawn Community High School is keenly aware of the urgent need to communicate to families about what to expect next school year and we anticipate releasing our own transition plan in the coming weeks.”
He said he was confident that the reopening task force is providing feedback to the school administration and Board of Education as they create a reopening plan.
“I’m confident our school can put forth a plan that prioritizes the health and safety of our students, staff, and families while maintaining a dynamic learning environment,” he added.
Districts encompassing elementary and junior high schools are in a similar position.
Orland District 135 Supt. John Bryk said reopening options would be discussed at the next school board meeting on July 13.
“The North Palos District 117 administrative team has been sifting through the recent ISBE guidance documents to determine the safest way to open our schools. It is our preference to offer face-to-face instruction for the 2020-21 school year,” said Supt. Jeannie Stachowiak in a statement.
“We will continue to work through this process and keep our community aware of our district’s plans,” said Stachowiak, whose district includes Conrady Junior High School and four elementary schools in Hickory Hills and Palos Hills.
“Palos 118 is working as quickly as possible to develop plans for reopening schools in August,” said Supt. Anthony Scarsella, who oversees three elementary schools—two in Palos Park and one in Palos Heights. “Our goal is to release our plan in mid-July so parents have adequate time to prepare for what will most likely be an unusual start to the school year.”
“The safety mandates from the Illinois Department of Public Health and recommendations from the Illinois State Board of Education present many logistical challenges for our school district, particularly the 50-person occupancy limit in large spaces such as lunchrooms. This will be a challenge for our schools because of their relatively large enrollments—much larger than some surrounding school districts,” he said.
“I’m afraid that when it comes to reopening schools safely, there is no perfect plan. Each school district will have their own plan for reopening based on their particular set of circumstances,” Scarsella added.
Included in the state’s list of guidelines: use of face masks, a limit of gatherings in one room to no more than 50 people, regular temperature checks and increased sanitation of all school facilities.
Gov. JB Pritzker said the guidelines, while “strongly encouraged,” are up to each local district to implement, “based on its unique student enrollment, school facilities, staging, transportation and technological capacity.”
To ease the way, the state is making 2.5 million face masks available, enough for every K-12 public school student and staffer. The state also is allotting $569 million in federal COVID relief funds to local districts, most for general needs, and $54 million for laptop computers, internet connectivity and related staff training. The Illinois State Board of Education will give priority to districts with a large number of low-income students.