D181 schools will fully reopen in April

A divided Community Consolidated District 181 Board on Monday gave the green light to return to full in-person instruction starting April 5.

Four of the seven board members voted to move ahead with the administration’s plan to implement a full in-person/full remote learning model when the students return from spring break. The majority sided with those in the community who have argued that the current hybrid model is inadequate for students’ academic needs and that COVID-19 transmission risk can be managed with mitigations.

“We’re a lot smarter now and knowledgeable about everything than we were in the fall,” said board member Bill Cotter, who was joined by board members Sinead Duffy, Sarah Jakobsen and Nate Lucht and supporting the move. “All of the circumstances and factors in my mind lead me to conclude that it is reasonable for us to resume full in-person instruction.”

During discussion, Superintendent Hector Garcia noted that the amount of social distancing the district can provide is contingent on the number of families who choose the in-person option. An enrollment form was being sent out this week to households.

“These circumstances have presented a very challenging and difficult situation for our staff, families and community,” Garcia said. “With this direction from the board, we will immediately begin our work to gather the information and guidance that is necessary to best meet the needs of our school community.”

For lunch periods, during which students will have their masks off, Garcia stated that the district could provide five feet of social distancing, less than the six feet recommended by leading health agencies.

Teacher Stephanie Vercoe, speaking on behalf of the Hinsdale-Clarendon Hills Teachers Association during the public comment portion, said that teachers want to get back in the classroom. But she believes conditions are not safe enough yet.

“The risk of spreading COVID-19 would be increased at lunchtime where children would be eating without masks,” Vercoe said. “We feel it is crucial at this point to maintain all recommended protocols, including appropriate social distancing.”

That factor and the lack of clarity on classroom social distancing led board President Margie Kleber to move to postpone the vote on fully reopening for two weeks to allow more consideration of the matter by administrators in consultation with the transition and ad hoc health committees.

“The timing of the reopening immediately after spring break could result in outbreaks two weeks later,” she said in proposing the delay. “That could potentially require a two-week quarantine with only eight weeks left in the school year.”

The motion got the support of board members Meeta Patel and Sheetal Rao but was defeated 4-3, setting the stage for the vote to fully reopen.

Before the vote, Jakobsen thanked all district stakeholders for being part of the discussion. She said survey results show most families support reopening.

“The community has spoken, and a majority want their children to return to school full-time,” she said, urging the administration to “yet again, rise to the occasion” in refining the plan.

Garcia said officials will work to develop creative solutions to maximize social distancing in the classroom through seating arrangements and student groupings, as well as during the lunch hour by possibly utilizing additional spaces, tents or outdoor seating, and encouraging parents to pick up their child to have lunch at home.

The district also is moving forward with saliva surveillance testing to identify asymptomatic individuals among students and staff.

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean