D86 goes remote, D181 pursues hybrid

Dynamic COVID-19 landscape has compelled both districts to make recent course adjustments

Hinsdale High School District 86 students expecting to have their first in-person classes today since the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in March will instead be learning from home, the district announced last week.

Frustration levels were high at the district's board meeting Aug. 13 as Superintendent Tammy Prentiss informed the board of education that, due to more stringent return-to-school guidance issued Aug. 12 by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education, the district would have to postpone its hybrid plan of mixed and in-person/remote instruction in favor of all remote classes to start the school year.

Among the most problematic aspects, Prentiss said, were the redefining of "close contact" as being within 6 feet of a confirmed case of COVID-19, with or without a face covering, for at least 15 minutes throughout the course of a day and that any student or staff member with symptoms such as a sore throat, headache, runny nose or cough, be sent home, tested and remain at home until test results are received.

"It's just absurd, nonsensical, to the point of not even being a plan," remarked board member Keith Chval of the IDPH guidelines. "We're going to send kids home that have sniffles? Are you kidding me?"

Additionally, Prentiss reported, the close contact time frame begins two days prior to the onset of symptoms - making contact tracing more challenging - and an outbreak is now defined by IDPH as "two confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections of individuals occurring within 14 calendar days of each other in the same classroom." These updates, she said, depart significantly from previous guidance on which the district's Recovery-Revitalization-Restore Committee had based its recommendation of hybrid in-person/remote model.

"At 4 o-clock last night, IDPH, in my opinion, changed the game plan and gave us a whole new set of things that we have to consider that was never part of any of our conversations before as a committee," Prentiss told board members, saying the "level of disruption and students coming and going" because of the new protocols would undermine "confidence in the continuity of rigorous instruction."

"It's very frustrating on the receiving end to be told three different things within 30 days of each other," she added.

Board member Kathleen Hirsman said she was also disappointed in the developments but opposed the suggestion that the district proceed with its hybrid plan anyway.

"I am not comfortable with that at all. We may disagree with (IDPH), but that is a very dangerous position" for the district, she said, citing liability concerns.

Board President Kevin Camden agreed while characterizing the seeming incongruity between the state's safety rules for athletics and its rules for academics as maddening.

"I have a disjointed understanding of how, at a state level, we can say some things are acceptable and some are not," Camden said. "We don't want to be in a circumstance where we're not working collaboratively, and we don't need to be venturing off the range on our own.

"At the end of the day our primary responsibility, at least as I see it, is to educate students. Sports and extracurricular activities would be secondary," he added.

On Friday the IDPH approved the modified sports plan developed by the Illinois High School Association. Under the plan, interscholastic competitions can take place even if a school is conducting fully remote learning.

Prentiss said the R3 committee will meet to discuss the updated guidance and report back to the board at its Aug. 27 meeting.

In Community Consolidated District 181, plans to provide full five-day in-person instruction were jettisoned in favor of a hybrid model in which students will attend class either in the morning or afternoon and learn remotely the other half of the day. Families can also opt for fully remote instruction.

At the Aug. 13 special board meeting, district board members approved both the hybrid model and remote learning model as part of the 2020-21 reopening plan. The first day of class was pushed to Sept. 8.

Under the hybrid plan, elementary students stay in one classroom as much as possible. Students in grades three to five will move in small groups for math classes. Middle school students will travel through their day in grade-level groups.

There will be no on-site lunch or recess, and all before- and after-school activities as well as field trips have been canceled. Parents are encouraged to drive their children to school to reduce the number needing to use buses.

Superintendent Hector Garcia told board members that the administration is continuing to develop transition guidelines for switching between learning models in the event that changing circumstances allow either for more in-person instruction or dictate that all students learn remotely. He said the absence of clear IDPH guidance on that has put educators in a difficult position.

"Our health organizations and our state organizations in education have left a gray area for schools to decide and try to play experts in the health field," Garcia related, saying the district will work with local experts to set strategies for switching models based on positivity rates. "We understand the frustration of not knowing."

Parents were asked in a survey to choose their child's learning model by Monday.

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean