This morning, the Chicago Tribune published my op-ed on school closings. But I have more to say, about my local circumstances:
My local high school district, Illinois District 214, was planning to offer parents the choice of in-person or remote instruction for their children; parents could choose fully-remote, fully-in-person, or a hybrid, accomplished by enabling each class to be streamed online so that its students could choose to attend remotely or in-person.
Last Wednesday, they abandoned that plan — without any sort of public vote. In fact, a friend of a friend attended the school board meeting, which was not livestreamed and was announced at the last minute, and had the impression, at first, that there would be a vote forthcoming, but the school district has now published its full plan (see here and here) and I’m honestly a bit shocked that a school district can make this sort of decision without a public vote from the school board.
So here’s the entirety of the plan as publicly communicated:
First, immediate in-person instruction for “our most vulnerable students – those who are homeless or part of our special needs populations
or special programs” as well as for two classes which occur offsite, Practical Architectural and Construction and Aviation.
Second, “vocational students” as well as those with “dual credit lab-based classes.”
Third to come into the building will be ” small pods of students – between 10 to 15 per available space according to public health guidelines – to engage those who need reliable internet access or additional supports that can only be accommodated in-person.”
Fourth will be a hybrid model bringing in “a significantly greater number of our students to attend classes in person on a rotating basis.”
Only after all these four steps would the district implement the original plan, in which families could choose in-person learning.
Do you notice anything missing from this plan?
Yes, there is indeed no timeline or process outlined for evaluating the movement through these stages.
After all, this plan is not wholly unreasonable on its face. Bring in a small group of students, gain confidence that face masks and other requirements are effective at preventing spread in classrooms, and with, say, a two-week spacing, bring in more kids, and then, with a further two-week spacing, bring in even more. If at any stage, there is spread in the classrooms, then rethink how things are being handled — do kids who aren’t complying with the mask mandate need to be sent home more quickly? Is the spacing insufficient? Are the plans for lunchtime (which are the most challenging insofar as kids must remove masks to eat) insufficient? Do passing periods need a re-do?
But there is nothing in this plan that suggests that they have any sort of process, metrics, or timeline towards getting to in-person instruction.
And, instead, the concerns they cite suggest that those metrics do not, cannot exist. They cite two students and one coach who tested positive at sports camps, requiring quarantines. But the numbers of students who test positive is not the relevant factor — the question is to what extent they infect those around them, and here one presumes (by the lack of a mention to the contrary when it would bolster their justification of their decision) that theses were three individual instances. They cite directions from the Cook County Department of Health as well as the Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Department of Public Health, which suggest that restrictions would make it difficult to function during the school day and that an entire school might be required to quarantine for a single case. Finally, they raise the concern that students would need to be at home to act as caregivers for younger siblings (which was an option in the prior plan in any case — did the school district want to avoid resentful students by being the ones, rather than their parents, to make the choice?), which suggests that they don’t intend for virtual-only school to end before the elementary schools move to in-person.
(To what extent were these the drivers behind their decision, vs. union pressure or the need to conform to other school districts? I have no idea.)
Is it reasonable to say, “the state will require us to quarantine an entire school when a case arises, so we might as well not have in-person school”? If so, that’s an admission that, except for the special groups, there will be no in-person school until a vaccine is widely available, that is, the state’s Phase 5, which could be as long as a year from now. On the other hand, is the school hoping that successful smaller steps would persuade the state/county to be more lenient? Or on the third hand, were we all the victims of a failed negotiation?
And who exactly are the earlier waves of students? Does the school truly envision that homeless students will attend otherwise-empty classrooms, just they and their teachers? Does “special needs populations” mean, simply enough, those with intellectual disabilities who receive instruction in self-contained classrooms? Who, then, are the step-three kids who need “additional supports” — is this a special, early return to school for immigrant or low-income kids, for instance? Which classes will qualify for in-person meeting as “vocational” or “dual credit lab-based” – will vocational electives or science classes with labs be deemed to qualify, or only those older students with a specific pathway such as auto repair?
Finally, there are students who don’t fit into these “special” buckets but who are harmed by the social isolation they experience day after day. Does everyone without a label or diagnosis have to wait until – what, Phase 5?
This lack of information is not acceptable — the school board (which has already failed in its responsibility to be accountable through a public vote) owes parents (and voters) far more specific information, that is, if we’re to believe there exists a true plan to move to in-person education.
Update: one further issue in the school’s plan is this: they express the intention to provide extracurricular activities to the extent feasible and allowable by state authorities.
There will be some version of co-curricular activities as school reopens. Which activities are available and what form they take will be determined by a multitude of factors, all based on the pandemic’s course and related safety guidelines from the state.
But their focus is on sports. With respect to other activities, they say:
ISBE guidelines also note documented concerns about aerosol transmission of the virus through singing. In addition, instrumental music presents challenges for a variety of reasons, including aerosol transmission, which is more pronounced with some musical instruments than others. While in-person performances may be limited at this time, D214 is developing opportunities for students to perform in safe alternative experiences.
This is insufficient.
If the large majority of students are expected to receive their instruction remotely, and thus lose their opportunity for interaction with other students (and if the school wants to avoid students responding by hosting/attending parties which create more risk for themselves and their families), it is incumbent on the school district to redouble their efforts to provide opportunities for face-to-face interaction.
Don’t replace in-person all-band rehearsals with assignments to practice one’s instrument and record individually. Replace then instead with small group meetings, even if it requires more work than sending out a zoom assignment.
If there’s no theater performances for which tech crew kids can build sets, open up the shop for extracurricular woodworking opportunities.
Increase opportunities to join a chess club, a D&D club, a Euro-style board game club — anything that can be done in small groups. Move “pizza and politics” from lunchtime to after school. Set as a goal the objective of having every kid, not just the athletes, engaged in some fashion in some in-person activity — because there will be a heck of a lot of kids who will struggle with being isolated who don’t fit into the buckets that deem them having “special needs” in the school district’s classifications.
Image: public domain, https://www.maxpixel.net/Bus-Vehicle-Education-Transport-School-Bus-School-4406479