Return to school took some study in 181

By the time federal COVID relief funding is doled out, Community Consolidated Elementary District 181 expects to receive about $1.16 million.

According to Rick Engstrom, assistant superintendent of business and operations, the bulk of those funds have gone to, or are earmarked for, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, distance learning equipment and furniture compatible with social distancing protocols.

Superintendent Hector Garcia said the funding has been a significant factor in allowing the district to return to full-time in-person school on April 5.

“The money has certainly been helpful in terms of adjusting with our safety protocols and procuring things like tables for students,” he said.

With nearly 90 percent of students opting for in-person learning, district staff had to rearrange rooms from the previous hybrid model of instruction.

“We needed to find another way of maintaining that four to six feet of social distance,” he said, as well as instituting a more extensive cleaning regimen for the schools.

“These funds have been very beneficial to allocate to cleaning products and procedures and the social distancing component,” Garcia said.

At the district’s April 12 board meeting, Kathleen Robinson cited a math class using a Neat Bar device purchased with the funds to enable interaction between in-class students and those taking part remotely.

“What we found really interesting when we visit this class was that the students were working in small groups and that some of the students were grouped really close to the monitor and they were working with students at home,” she said.

Return to school

Garcia said the return to full-time in-person learning has gone “incredibly well” in light of the fact that 89.8 percent of students are back.

“We’re really excited about that. I think that’s a really high percentage,” he said.

“We’ve heard a great deal of feedback from our parents, and I’m seeing a great deal of energy as I walk around the schools,” he said.

But the pivot required major schedule adjustments, especially on the part of middle school principals and teachers, as John Munch, assistant superintendent for human resources, told board members at the meeting.

“Every single student schedule had to be touched, every teacher assignment had to be considered in order to pull this off,” Munch reported, with a goal of keeping student and teacher pairings together as much as possible. “It took an exceptionally long period of time and a lot of work to pull off this schedule, especially doing it in the middle of the year.”

He noted that some teachers who are now livestreaming did not have any remote classes prior to April 5.

“It really is teaching in a new kind of way, and so they’ve undertaken that challenge,” Munch said.

Elementary student schedules did not need to be changed, but four certified teachers were brought on to staff additional sections needed. Two teachers were also hired to provide support for large classes that did not warrant a split, and another two to provide remote instruction to quarantined students.

Garcia said students during lunch are separated by a minimum of six feet, and that music classes are being held outside when possible. When not, they follow Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines such as use of hoods on instruments and ample distancing.

“We want to get our kids’ music programs outside as much as possible,” he said.

Garcia reflected on concerns leading into the return to school like whether kids can wear masks all day. He said that has not been a problem.

“Our kids do a fantastic job of keeping their masks on and following safety protocols,” he said. “Students and parents have been great partners with us and terrific in understanding that protocols were going to have to change.”

Garcia also expressed a newfound appreciation for the importance of our teamwork at all levels.

“We’ve had high levels of collaboration between our administrative team, our teachers, our union — it’s taken unbelievable creativity to go from all remote to a hybrid model to full in-person.”

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean