D181 board votes for hybrid reopening plan

With teachers and many families opposing a full, five-day return to school for students amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Community Consolidated School District 181 Board members Monday night approved both a hybrid in-person/remote model and a full remote learning option for the 2020-21 school year.

"We need to listen and hear (our constituents) and work with them to come up with the safest plan possible," said Board President Margie Kleber following the 5-1 vote on the reopening plan.

The first day of school will be Sept. 8, following a one-week delay and five remote learning planning days permitted by the state. The original start date was Aug. 24. Asked on Wednesday before The Hinsdalean went to press if the hybrid instruction would feature half-day or full-day schedules, the district's communications director Jamie Lavigueur said that had not yet been determined.

Meeting at Hinsdale Middle School - the first time the board had gathered in the same room in months - for its second special meeting in five days, the board made its decision having received hundreds of public comments both supporting and critical of the administration's recommendation to offer five-day, in-person instruction.

Ultimately, a majority of board members were uncomfortable with the district's inability to guarantee 6 feet of social distancing in all classrooms under the full in-person model, which instead promised 4 to 6 feet of distancing.

Superintendent Hector Garcia told board members that was based on the Illinois State Board of Education's guidelines of 6 feet "when possible." An additional facility would be needed to guarantee 6 feet, he said, as between 20 and 30 percent of students would have to be relocated.

"There would be a number of staff members that would have to be hired as well as administrative teams if we were to take over a new building," Garcia stated, underscoring the financial and social-emotional ramifications of such a step.

Both the Hinsdale-Clarendon Hills Teachers Association (HCHTA) and Hinsdale Educational Support Staff (HESS) opposed full in-person school, contending that it put their members at significant risk of exposure to COVID-19 and calling for a hybrid plan.

"Health and safety must be our top priority for students and staff, and the current plan does not support optimal health and safety," HCHTA stated in a letter read at the meeting.

Public comments revealed a frustration among many in the community that a survey sent out to district families regarding reopening options included only the five-day in-person and full remote options, with only a couple of days to lock in their choice.

Vanessa Horton, a Monroe School parent, said the approach did not reflect the community's true sentiment.

"The vast majority of parents are opposed to having just two, all-or-nothing options," she said, citing neighboring school districts pursuing hybrid models. "Our teachers want safety. We should provide that for them."

But board member Bill Cotter, the lone dissenting vote on the reopening plan, echoed by Garcia and Assistant Superintendent of Learning Kathleen Robinson that a hybrid model "comes at the expense of curriculum" because students would have less time in class with their teachers.

"A hybrid model does result in ...diminished achievement of curriculum," Cotter said.

That concern was voiced by other district families who made public comments in support of the original recommendation.

Board member Sheetal Rao, speaking in support of the 6 feet of distancing, stated that "it is inevitable that there will children on the first day of school who have COVID."

"Maintaining 6 feet of social distancing would help inhibit spread of the virus and lead to more instructional continuity," Rao said. "I feel the more rigorously we follow safety guidelines, the more likely we are to stay open longer."

Kleber concurred, saying the district must also consider the safety of students' families.

"We have to be especially cautious and assume that there are going to be children that come to school and have, potentially, been exposed and are asymptomatic," she commented, emphasizing her discomfort with allowing less than 6 feet social distancing. "I'm not comfortable making a decision like that for someone else's child."

Board member Nate Lucht said he had been leaning toward the original recommendation but ultimately voted for the hybrid plan.

"I think that this is going to be the best viable solution," Lucht said.

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean