Suburban districts flip-flop, nix in-person learning for fall after initially planning to reopen schools

Evanston and Elgin schools will be online after considering a hybrid model early on. But other districts, including Elmhurst and Batavia, are sticking with in-person components.

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Jeremiah Wells (5), left, walks with his mom Diana Martinez in front of Heritage Elementary School, Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Streamwood Ill. Jeremiah will be starting Kindergarten at Heritage this coming fall via online classes. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Jeremiah Wells (5), left, walks with his mom Diana Martinez in front of Heritage Elementary School in Streamwood Ill. Jeremiah will be starting Kindergarten at Heritage this coming fall via online classes.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

School districts in some of Chicago’s largest suburbs had planned to kick off the fall with students back in classrooms at least part-time.

But with the start of school less than a month away and pressure mounting from anxious parents and teachers during a raging pandemic, some of those very districts have backtracked and will start the year fully remote.

Others plan to stick with a hybrid model to get students in school at least occasionally, and most districts, whether they’re planning to bring kids back on a limited basis or not at all, are pledging to improve the online learning experience from the end of last school year.

Online learning will include more live teaching sessions in Elgin Area School District U-46 schools, the second-largest district in the state after Chicago Public Schools. That includes teachers and students using a single digital platform and having teachers evaluate all student work to determine performance. The district’s decision to go fully remote came after it had initially been leaning toward a hybrid model.

Diana Martinez, 43, of Streamwood, will have children in kindergarten and high school at District U-46 schools this fall. Martinez, a single mother who lost two jobs due to the pandemic, said she had waited to find a new job until she knew her kids’ schedules. She even started training her younger son to get used to wearing a mask, in case his kindergarten class had an in-person component.

Online learning in the spring was a positive experience for Martinez’s rising sophomore, she said, who was bullied his freshman year. But if school were to have been in-person this fall, Martinez said she “wouldn’t have hesitated” or been nervous about sending her kids.

She said she had planned to support the district’s decision, whatever it was.

“I didn’t want to create that for myself because then my kids would feel that tension,” Martinez said. “If I would have been nervous or complaining, I think [my kids] would have hesitated.”

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Students will not be returning for in-person learning at Evanston Township High School this fall.

Sun-Times file photo

Decision reversed after four days

Evanston Township High School District 202 had planned to start some in-school instruction after Labor Day, a plan discussed at a July 13 board meeting. Less than a week later, the school announced on July 17 it would stick with remote learning “until further notice.” Elementary and middle schools in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 will hold remote classes through September, then transition to in-person classes four days a week if the district deems the health situation safe.

In the south suburbs, South Holland School District 150 will start fully online, evaluating after six weeks to see if it’s safe to move into a hybrid model. Students will receive five hours of instruction a day, according to its remote learning plan.

J. Sterling Morton High School District 201, which serves 8,400 high school students in west suburban Cicero and Berwyn, will keep kids at home to start the year Aug. 19, but will open libraries for students who need a place to study. District leaders said they’ll monitor health guidance every two weeks and could move to a partial reopening as soon as Sept. 18.

Rachel Esposito, president of the teachers union at Cicero School District 99, the suburb’s elementary and junior high district, said at a recent Illinois Federation of Teachers virtual news conference that “there’s nothing that we could do that would 100 percent prevent this disease from spreading.” The IFT, which represents 100,000 educators in the state including those in the Chicago Teachers Union, has pushed for all districts to start the school year remotely.Administrators at Esposito’s district are expected to announce their fall plan in the coming days.

“We can do all of the preventative measures we want, but the reality is that there’s still going to be positive cases,” Esposito said. “And we see it all the time, especially in a town like Cicero. This is a working-class community, we have a lot of essential workers that work in this community.”

West suburban Oak Park Elementary School District 97 had also planned on a hybrid teaching model, but at a July 22 special board meeting, the district announced the first trimester of classes will be remote.

“We have heard serious concerns from our staff and families about returning to in-person learning,” said district Supt. Carol Kelly in an announcement.

District 97’s online curriculum — “Remote Learning 2.0” — will be more rigorous and offer more live instruction than in the spring, with structured class times and expectations for homework.

Farther west, Naperville Community Unit School District 203 plans to stick with a hybrid teaching model, with students split into groups by last name to try to keep siblings in the district on the same schedule. Parents had the chance to opt into an Online Academy, committing their students to at least a semester or trimester of online learning.

Face masks required

Schools planning to offer any in-person experience this fall must require face masks, keep groups at 50 people or less and social distance as much as possible, according to guidelines issued by the Illinois State Board of Education June 23.

Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205 plans on reopening all elementary schools for in-person classes and implementing a hybrid model for middle and high school students. But Max Schoenberg, a math teacher at York Community High School and president of the Elmhurst Teachers’ Council, said many of the district’s teachers have concerns that the reopening plan doesn't address.

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Max Schoenberg teaches math at York Community High School in Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205. He’s also the president of the Elmhurst Teachers’ Council.

Provided by Max Schoenberg

For example, Schoenberg said, the model designates that all students on campus are required to eat lunch in the building, but since students will have to remove masks to eat, there’s no clear guidance on how students will be protected. And while District 205 parents have the freedom to opt into full-time remote classes, teachers don’t have that choice. More than half of teachers in the district either have an underlying health condition or live with someone who does that makes them higher risk for the virus, Schoenberg said.

“We’re caught in this dilemma. We would all rather be in person,” Schoenberg said. “But we want that experience when it’s safe.”

School board President Kara Caforio said in a letter to the teachers’ council that the board is committed to safety and monitoring the changing health situation and is prepared to adjust accordingly.

Social distancing might be impossible in places like Niles North High School, which serves more than 2,000 students in north suburban Skokie, said Pankaj Sharma, a social studies teacher at the school and the vice president of the teachers union.

Niles Township High School District 219 is planning to hold classes remotely for the first three weeks of school starting Aug. 17, then will phase students into a hybrid model after Labor Day.

“Our community also is a multi-generational community, so we have a lot of students who live with their grandparents, and their parents are essential workers, too,” Sharma said at a recent IFT press conference.

“We want to ... make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to keep our communities safe,” Sharma said.

Hope for full in-person instruction

Other districts are still holding out hope for a return to full in-person classes at some point this fall. Batavia Public School District 101, west of Chicago, is planning on starting the year with hybrid instruction and transitioning to all in-person classes after Labor Day, if local conditions allow, the district said on July 21.

In a message to families, students and staff July 8, the district said it was “pleased to report” that the state “strongly encourages in-person instruction for students to the greatest extent possible while keeping health and safety as the number one priority.” About 20% of the district’s students have opted for remote learning.

But the district is facing backlash as teachers claim they weren’t consulted about the fall plans. Scott Bayer, a history teacher at Batavia High School, posted on Facebook that he and other teachers were “shocked” by the district’s announcement, which he said was “coercive.”

“Teachers are ready as we’re going to be for the uncertainties of this year,” Bayer said. “But any plan put forward that your kids’ teachers don’t have a hand in creating cannot be implemented safely and effectively.”

Contributing: Nader Issa

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