Across Southern Illinois in recent days, K-12 education officials have announced their plans for the return of school next month — even as state and federal guidelines continuously shift.
These proposals come after weeks of planning and long, and sometimes heated, school board meetings. Much is still unknown — and unknowable. But a picture is starting to emerge for what the return to school may look like across the region.
For the majority of schools offering some in-person learning, students will be expected to wear masks. Temperatures will be taken and symptoms monitored. Students may eat breakfast in their classrooms and get sent home with a sack lunch. In many districts, teachers will juggle delivering lessons to students in-person and remotely — all while monitoring coughs and sniffles, and enforcing masks and social distancing for pre-K children as young as age 3.
The Southern Illinoisan spent the past week interviewing more than two dozen administrators, parents, teachers, students and health officials about the return of school next month.
Several themes emerged from those conversations: this won’t be a “normal” school year; innovation and patience are needed in large doses; plans are fluid and subject to change many times over; there are no easy answers; and the community should anticipate challenges and setbacks.
“There’ve been a lot of different issues in education that we’ve had to deal with over the years ... but this is by far the most challenging, hardest thing that I think I’ve ever dealt with in my career,” said Century District 100 Superintendent Landon Sommer, whose three children also attend the district he leads in Ullin.
Southern Illinois superintendents are regularly meeting virtually and sharing ideas. There are overlaps in many of their plans, but also significant differences district to district.
The hybrid model
Many schools, including Carbondale and Murphysboro high schools — two of the biggest in Jackson County — will return with a hybrid model where students physically attend school on designated days and times, and also learn remotely.
At both schools, student attendance will be staggered on alternative days by designation of an A/B grouping — students in each group will spend two days at school and three days learning remotely. This option allows schools to comply with state guidelines that say there should not be more than 50 students in one place at a time, which would make things like lunch and recess challenging with all students attending school on the same day, administrators say.
The goal with this hybrid model, Murphysboro Superintendent Andrea Evers said, is to “provide as normal a learning situation as you can” while prioritizing student and staff safety. At a school board meeting Friday evening, Marion CUSD 2 also approved a hybrid approach that blends in-person and remote learning days.
In Herrin, kindergarten through fifth graders will be offered in-person classes every day until lunch, and then complete their afternoons remotely. At the middle school and high school, students will follow a similar format but work entirely remotely on Fridays, said Superintendent Terry Ryker.
Giant City School Superintendent Belinda Hill said her district’s hybrid plan calls for about half of the school district’s 200 children to attend on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half on Thursdays and Fridays. All students will learn remotely on Wednesdays. That day, staff will perform a deep clean of the school, and teachers will spend time planning and reaching out to children and families via online and phone calls.
In all of these schools offering a hybrid in-person learning option, parents also have the ability to choose a remote-only plan, in line with guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education.
Remote-only — for now
A few districts are taking an even more cautious approach. Carbondale District 95 and Unity Point have opted to start off the school year fully remote. In a marathon board meeting Thursday night, District 95 Superintendent Daniel Booth told board members that parents for 55% of students who had already registered for school this fall had chosen to go fully remote.
At the meeting, administrators said that one advantage of the remote-only option is that it gives teachers access to all their students in the same format, whereas in a blended model they would see some children in-person and others online only.
But ultimately, Board President John Major said the decision had to prioritize students’ safety. “Our goal is the health and safety of our children,” Major said. “If one student gets ill, deadly ill, I’m going to feel pretty bad about that.”
Booth said there was “no good option” but the one the district chose is the safest and reduces students’ exposure risk to COVID-19. When schools were forced to go remote in March, he said “we did the best that we could” with the learning packets they delivered to students.
But this fall, Booth said things will look different. He said a lot of the teacher preparation before school starts in the coming weeks will be spent helping teachers improve their remote teaching plans. Booth said he’s not sure how long the remote-only model will last, but suspected it will go at least until early October and at that point, the district will reassess the situation.
Unity Point Superintendent Lori James-Gross said students will begin remote learning at her school on Aug. 17, but new content won’t be introduced until mid-September. Teachers and staff will spend the first month of the school year working to set up tailored success plans with each student. Remote lessons will center on educational review, social and emotional development and health and safety protocols such as mask wearing and hand washing in preparation for the return to in-person learning.
By Sept. 14, James-Gross said the district hopes to begin a hybrid learning model where half of students attend Monday and Tuesday and half Thursday and Friday — with Wednesdays dedicated to remote-only learning, teacher development and building cleaning. James-Gross said that the school built "flexibility" into its approach to allow for transitions between the hybrid model and remote-only learning, should the pandemic necessitate that students remain home.
Close to normal
Other schools are looking at a model that more closely resembles a typical school year. This has been a more common choice among smaller, rural districts in Southern Illinois. Among them are Century District 100, which serves about 400 students in northern Pulaski County.
“We are hoping to try to make it work full, in-person, five days a week. We may get into that and realize it’s not going to work, but that’s our goal right now,” said Sommer, the superintendent.
Last week, Vienna High School and its four feeder grade school districts also issued a joint school reopening plan that includes full-week, in-person instruction. In Century as well as at the Johnson County schools, students will go home a little earlier than normal to give teachers time to work with students whose families opt for the remote-only learning. “We have never done this before,” the Johnson County schools said in their joint FAQ document to parents. “This will not be perfect, but we will all work together and figure it out!”
Details still emerging
Some schools are still finalizing plans. De Soto Consolidated School District 86 is set to vote on its reopening plan on Monday evening, and Carterville CUSD 5’s board has called a special meeting for Tuesday.
In Carterville, some parents have grown inpatient with the school district’s delay in announcing a plan, taking to social media to voice their frustrations. Keith Liddell, Carterville CUSD 5 superintendent, said that developing his school’s 2020-2021 “Return to Learn” plan has been challenged by constantly changing federal and state guidelines.
Schools, Liddell said, are in “uncharted waters." “We're doing the best we can with the information we’re given. I don't want to speak for everyone, but I know my peers well enough to know that we all want to bring these kids back,” he said.
Parents, students grappling with decisions
As difficult as these decisions are for school districts, even more difficult conversations are taking place within homes between parents and their children.
Nancy Maxwell, whose 16-year-old daughter, Janae, attends Marion High School, said she worries about the possibility of an outbreak at her daughter’s school, and what would happen if she brought it home to her. Maxwell is considered high-risk for the virus because she has diabetes.
“I want a plan that gives me a secure enough feeling that it will be safe to send my daughter back and because I have diabetes, if she was to go to school and get something ... I would be at an extremely high risk,” she said.
Janae, who is entering her junior year, said there are many aspects of high school she is missing, including being around friends and running track. Her spring season was cut short after the pandemic shuttered schools.
There are longer-term ramifications to missing another season: Janae hopes to earn a college scholarship running. But Janae is also worried about the possibility that she could catch the virus at school and unknowingly spread it to her mother. “I would feel so lost if I ever lost her,” she said.
Robyn Falaster, of Murphysboro, said she’s lost sleep over trying to decide whether to send her incoming kindergartner to school next month. “It’s just really scary that the (COVID-19) numbers are ticking upward and we’re three weeks out from school,” she said. She does plan to send her fourth grade daughter to Carruthers Elementary School and her son will be attending Murphysboro High School as a sophomore under the district’s hybrid schedule.
Falaster said her older children are better able to understand the consequences of the pandemic and follow health guidelines. She’s not sure how 5-year-olds will respond to these changes. On the other hand, she worries about her youngest missing out on developing important social and educational skills.
“It really feels like there’s no choice to me that sticks out as this is the better choice,” Falaster said. “It’s like, here are two really not great choices, and as a parent, pick one.”
Carbondale District 95 parent Sheree Ollie was pleased to see the district’s decision to start school remote-only. “I think that’s the safest thing to do,” she said. In fact, she had already decided that her daughter, Megan Curtis, who will enter the seventh grade this fall, would be learning remotely regardless of which model the district chose.
Ollie said underlying health conditions for herself and her daughter were among her concerns. “Her health is first,” she said. For her part, Curtis said that she was disappointed with the remote school option for the fall and will miss being able to get together with her friends at school, but understood why the decision was made.
Maya Benyas is a rising senior at Carbondale Community High School who shared similar feelings of uncertainty about the upcoming year.
“We only see half of our class the entire year or however long this lasts,” Benyas said. “We’re pretty conflicted about that because we want the social aspect of school, that’s a big part of going to school, but the safety issue is there as well.” Learning in the classroom is also a richer educational experience than lessons delivered remotely, she said.
She said she has heard “horror stories of schools opening up,” getting a positive COVID-19 case and then being forced to shut down. “That’s a big concern because if we do open up and get a case, we’re going to have to go virtual and it’s just a big hassle,” she said. “I don’t know, it’s just crazy.”
Connectivity issues challenge remote learning
Remote learning comes with its own host of struggles, including for many parents, spotty internet access. Nicole Epplin lives in the outskirts of Carbondale with her husband and three children, a sixth grader, a fourth grader and a first grader.
Epplin said she has reached out to at least a dozen different companies in hopes of finding an affordable internet option to no avail. She said their neighbors who live 250 feet away utilize a popular local internet company but Epplin was told they “live too far away from the road” for service — and companies have said the infrastructure needed to connect them is not feasible.
The family has resorted to using cellphones as hotspots, but with the shift to remote learning, it has been a challenge. Epplin works from home and said she regularly saves her high speed data on her phone so she can work. But with her children at home, they burned through their data cap in “the first couple of days,” so they purchased another cellphone.
“At that time we had no choice, we just had to fight through it,” Epplin said. “I can be patient and wait a couple minutes for a website to load but (the kids) don’t have the patience to sit there and wait for two minutes for a page to load or write a paper and then watch their screen crash.”
Epplin said an alternative for the family would be to sit outside of school to access Wi-Fi in their car and have her children do their schoolwork — but the situation seems “cruel.” She and her husband are both essential workers and she said it would be difficult to work and take care of her three children.
Additionally, she said the transition to remote learning — including childcare and internet costs — are greater than sending her three children to a private school. In response, Epplin pulled her children from Giant City School and enrolled them at a local parochial school in order to get a full-week, in-person education.
Rachel Womack, who lives in rural Johnson County, said reliable internet service is one of the big challenges to remote learning for many families who live in the countryside. That’s part of what’s driving her decision to send her two school-age children for the in-person learning option at Vienna Grade School and Vienna High School. It’s not that she isn’t concerned about the virus — her mom is in a high-risk category. But she’s equally concerned about her children doing well in school. “Where we live, our internet is sketchy at best,” she said. “Internet is a huge concern, not just for me but for a lot of people.”
Sommer, who is the superintendent at Century, said that while many schools are offering laptops and hotspots to families, it’s not an option for everyone — especially in districts like his. “At my own house, even if I have a hotspot, that’s based on cell signal and cell signal is almost nonexistent at my house,” he said.
Teachers face ‘a lot of uncertainty’
The state’s major teachers unions came in on different sides of the return-to-school issue. Earlier this month, the Illinois Federation of Teachers recommended that remote learning would be the best option for districts this fall. However, the Illinois Education Association, which is the primary union representing teachers in the state’s southern school districts, recommended in-person learning, at least in some capacity.
Brooke Crombar, who teaches third grade at Thomas Elementary in Carbondale, said teachers have been faced with “a lot of uncertainty” since the beginning of the pandemic and are “trying their best” in planning for the next academic year.
Reflecting on the spring, Crombar said remote learning was a new concept for educators. “There was a lot of uncertainty about the science of this virus and what actually was going to be expected of us as teachers, she said. “Everybody — teachers across the country — were kind of winging it under their own school’s guidelines and everyone just did the very best they could.”
While Crombar said there was a “lingering hope” schools would reopen in the spring, it didn’t happen. She often thought about her students and how she didn’t know her last day with them would be the last. “It was not just stressful but also heartwrenching because as teachers, we don’t do it just because it’s a job – we do it because we’re passionate about these kids and about learning,” she said.
Educators at Carbondale District 95 are aware the students missed out on a quarter of school, that not everyone did the remote learning the way the school had envisioned, and that some “academically needy students are going to really need support” during this time, Crombar said.
In order to be able to address the academics of school, educators have to start with the student’s “social and emotional needs that are far greater than any academic need,” Crombar said. “That is where our district wants us to start — meeting the kids where they are,” she said. “Also trying to make sure they’re OK, allowing them to share their experiences and work on building relationships with them.”
While COVID-19 has brought socioeconomic and geographic inequities to the front, school officials are treading onward toward a new normal. Crombar said she empathizes with parents during this time of the unknown, but encourages them to stay positive.
“Everyone’s living through this time of uncertainty and I would just try to reassure (parents that schools are) doing the very best they can do given a very challenging situation,” she said. “I would encourage parents to be as patient as they can, try not to panic and know that it’s all going to work out in some form — everyone’s in this together.”