At a specially called District 65 School Board meeting this morning, administrators presented an updated plan to return to school for the 2020-21 school year.

Under the plan, all students will begin the school year on Aug. 27 with remote learning scheduled on Mondays through Fridays. The remote learning will continue for all students through at least Sept.  29.

An in-person option begins on Sept. 29, if it is safe to do so. Students whose parents select this option will be provided in-person classes four days a week, on Tuesdays through Fridays. On Mondays, these students will participate in remote learning.

Superintendent Devon Horton said in a letter to the school community today that the District will continue to monitor the local conditions and State and national trends relating to the pandemic. “If there is an update to State guidance or a local resurgence of the virus, it may mean that we need to make changes to our return plan,” he said. “This could include the delay of in-person learning beyond Sept. 29 to further protect the health and safety of our community.”

Parents will have flexibility to choose a pathway for each child, either remote or in-person instruction. Dr. Horton said, “If there are more families who select in-person learning for their child than our buildings can safely accommodate, it may be necessary to implement alternate student attendance schedules.”

Parents are being asked to choose a pathway (i.e., remote learning or in-person instruction) by July 31, although several Board members asked that the deadline be extended.

Accommodations will be made for teachers if they or a family member are at high risk for COVID-19.

The District formed task forces to consider four options to return to school. About 60 people served on the task forces.

Providing for Health and Safety

Dr. Horton said a core value of the District is “health and safety first.” He said the District will “continue to prioritize the safety and health of our students, staff and community members by following guidelines of ISBE, IDPH, and CDC.” He added, “District staff will prioritize deep meaningful relationships to create safe learning environments for each child. District staff will empower the value, cultivation of relationships and belonging of students and parent voice in all aspects of learning and emotional support for families.

“Our design will include supports and structures that will allow students and staff to be cared for physically and mentally.”

Dr. Horton said that the safety protocols that would be implemented as part of the plan to return to in-person instruction include: face coverings will be required in all District facilities; the 6 foot spacing and social distancing guideline will be followed; hand washing and sanitizing will be frequent; there will be procedures set for arrivals and dismissals, and the use of hallways and restrooms; there will be a screening process for people entering the District’s building and a health self-certification; there will be  increased daily cleaning and disinfecting protocols; there will be a visitor policy; there will be protocols  on what to do if a student or teacher get sick, and if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19.

Building Facilities

Raphael Obafemi, Chief Financial Officer, said administrators, together with the District’s architect, determined the maximum number of students that could attend each of the District’s schools, taking into account the 6-foot spacing requirement and other guidelines approved by ISBE and IDPH.

The maximum number of students allowed in each building are as follows: JEH 172; Chute 466, Dawes 354, Dewey 359, Haven 556, King Arts 388, Kingsley  275, Lincoln 486, Lincolnwood 291, Nichols 418, Oakton 335, Orrington 303, Park 181, Bessie Rhodes 343, Walker 276, Washington 416, and Willard 297.

The enrollment at each school significantly exceeds these numbers.

Mr.  Obafemi said the District has been working to make sure the facilities are ready for in-person instruction. “So we’ve been working on the back end to get them ready. What we’ve done is we’ve continued to disinfect and clean deeply to make sure the buildings are in good shape, in a healthy shape for staff and students to come back to.”

 He added that staff will clean surfaces, such as door handles, handrails, and countertop tables very frequently. The District will continue to train staff, based on guidelines of OSHA and CDC, on the best way to clean buildings and facilities to prevent the spread of COVID.

“And as part of that, we recognize that infiltration is a key way of preventing the spread of the disease,” said Mr. Obafemi.  He said they plan to continue changing air filters and to calibrate the amount of air that is coming into the building to prevent the spread of disease. “So we’ll be using a guideline set by CDC, as well as the American Society for Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning.”

Mr. Obafemi added that the District has developed protocols for serving breakfast and lunch in the classrooms and to do so in a way that prevents cross-contamination. Staff is also developing a plan to make sure that families who have decided to keep their children home, have access to free or reduced-fee breakfasts or lunches if they qualify for that program.

Bus Transportation

Mr. Obafemi said about 2,500 students have historically taken the bus to school. “The transportation process is going to look different than the way it looks right now,” he said. Some of things that the District is doing is limiting the number of students who take the same bus to maintain social distancing; it is assigning each student (or a family of students) to a designated area of the bus; students boarding will be screened to see if they have a fever; the bus will be disinfected after each use; bus drivers will wear face masks.

Limiting the number of students who may ride a bus will required the District to provide additional buses, at an estimated cost of $2.2 million, said Mr. Obafemi.

The Instructional Program

Dr. Horton said, “Educators will engage learners with high quality instruction that is culturally relevant and rigorous.

“Remote learning is designed to achieve the same learning outcomes as the blended learning the blended on-site learning with the goal of accelerating learning outcomes for our students,” he said.

The plan contains different sections for children ages 0-3, ages 3-5, grades K-5, grades 6-8, emergent bilingual students, students with an IEP. It also contains a section addressing social and emotional learning. Administrators summarized the instructional plan for each group of students.

Stacy Beardsley said, “I’m going to take a few minutes to really talk about some of the key principles for a remote learning pathway [for grades K-5] and some of these principles are very much shared with on-site learning.

“We’ve spent considerable time reviewing the remote learning survey data, engaging and following up conversations and really working to understand what went well, and what did not go well in remote learning this spring. As we look at the upcoming school year, we’re using this learning to inform our design both for the remote learning and on site learning.

“The feedback centered on the importance of live and recorded interactions, the need for social emotional learning, a desire to better understand the learning targets, and student progress, as well as ways to increase engagement relevant for our student body regardless of their age group.

To help ensure that students learning remotely will experience and achieve the same learning outcomes as students being educated through in-person instruction, Dr. Beardsley said, “We have a set of core principles for remote learning.

“The first is that there’ll be a set start time for the instructional day for students with clear learning routines across the weeks. Students are expected to engage in learning in all subject areas and submit work associated with these learning areas.

“Content area learning will address grade-level learning expectations with the attention for any unfinished teaching and learning that may have occurred from last year.

“Instruction will be provided whole-class and in small groups depending on what is developmentally appropriate.

“Instruction may be live or recorded live. Recordings may be available for students to access if they miss instruction.

“Live check-ins will occur daily with teachers at a minimum in the form of a morning meeting and an afternoon check-in which is really set up to see how the day has gone, where there may be places to reconnect community, and to follow up on misconceptions or needed support.

“Educators will monitor engagement and provide feedback on learning, while also allowing for limited flexibility for student deadlines. But then understanding that when we are learning remotely, individuals are very much in different learning environments and may need to access learning at different times.

“Due to the fact that we will be ensuring that learning devices are in the hands of all kindergarten through eighth grade students and we’re committing to getting materials and supplies into the hands of students, we will be returning to a form of our more traditional grading policies as we move back into the fall.

Dr. Beardsley added that the remote instruction “will be in the form of shorter lessons with opportunities for small group or independent work for students and that independent work could be independent by themselves or working in collaboration with other students.

In addition she said, “We are keeping an eye for screen time advice and guidance leaning particularly on the American Pediatrics Association, as well as their revised guidance from this spring, and trying to make sure that time that is spent taking in learning online will be balanced with some independent opportunities away from the screen.

“And then fine arts and PE will be provided in designated times daily with a lens for creating increasing engagement and interaction from what we saw in the spring.

For in-class instruction, Dr. Beardsley said, “When we are on site, we are specifically going to be paying attention to some of those brain breaks and opportunities to be able to kind of step outside, remove masks, kind of work to build a competitive environment that’s going to keep kids connected to learning and have a degree of balance.

“We are looking at how we blend our reading, writing phonics, social studies into a larger humanities learning in order to try to create a stronger coherent set of learning in that space and somebody doing some of that thinking about math and science.

“We will continue with fine arts engagement when we are on site. That most likely will be video streamed into the classroom because, as has been spoken to by Dr. Horton and Raphael, we are going to be keeping kids and reduce the size of pods and limiting the amount of movement around the school building.

“And so the instruction that may be provided by an instructor beyond the core homeroom teacher would be most likely streamed or recorded for viewing within the classroom to limit the amount of contact that we have with others in the building.

“And then we want to be able to end with that afternoon, check in closing circle so that we can understand how the day went and frame what’s coming for the next day.

Dr. Beardsley said the guiding principles for grades 6-8 are the same as the ones for grades K-5.

“And for those that may look specifically to 6-8, and I just want to re-elevate the fact that the goal is to ensure that learning is the same in a remote learning environment as well as on site. It is our goal to provide high quality learning and to support students so that we can be essentially getting a year or more of growth.

Board Members Comments

Board member Soo La Kim, said, “ think one of the things I realized when I reviewed the plan is that we do have to let go of our expectations, our pre-COVID expectations, about what school was going to be like. I think both the remote learning and the hybrid model that will come online at the end of September are going to be very different school experiences for our children than what we maybe imagine and crave for them. But I think, you know, in that difference, I hope that we will take an opportunity to see the potential and see this as a transformative moment, an opportunity to maybe reinvent some of the models of learning and try out new tools.

“I’m really interested in what Stacy talked about with the initial integration of reading, writing and social studies and what that looks like, kind of an integrated humanities curriculum. So I think there are transformative possibilities here. And I hope that we will all, in addition to grieving what we’ve lost, also open ourselves up to creative solutions.

Board member Joey Hailpern said, “I also wanted to just clarify that this is a best-case plan right now until we get to stage five of the Restore Illinois plan that the Governor has put out. And that stage five plan doesn’t come until there’s a vaccine. So this is where we are, until science catches up with COVID-19.” He said he thought it was important to recalibrate expectations and “be prepared for the long game.”

 Mr. Hailpern added, “And I’m grateful actually, that we’re delaying the start of in-person learning for a little bit to see how things play out in other communities because I don’t think that our children and our staff and our community need to be the test case.”

Board member Suni Kartha, “One thing, as I looked through this plan, that struck me is it does feel like there is so much that we are trying to do, it felt a little bit like we are trying so hard to create as, ‘normal’ of an experience as possible in these times that are anything but normal. And so I just want us all to take a step back and really think about what that means and what the realistic goals are.

“And I don’t mean that we should have lower expectations, I think we need to have high expectations for ourselves and for educating our kids and particularly providing for their social emotional needs through this time. But, I think we have to really think through things like assessments, and … we have to be flexible and fluid as the moment necessitates …”

Ms. Kartha thanked everyone who worked on the plan, and said, “I keep telling people we are making the least bad decision here. There are no good decisions. All we can do … is try as much as possible to reduce harm. From what we know there is harm. This is a pandemic, we are all experiencing trauma at some level. And so I’m sorry, I mean, you may hear the emotion in my voice because I think this is such a difficult decision and I just appreciate all of you so much.”

Board member Rebeca Mendoza said, “I think we need to probably do some sort of town hall question and answer type of thing before we ask people to make this choice. And I think also really understanding that we do need to prioritize some children and families in the in-person option. There are many of us who maybe we want to send our kids back to in-person school because it’s not easy being a school teacher. But for many of us, we still need to make that choice to keep our kids at home so that we can prioritize the families that don’t have the similar choice or whose children do have more specific needs that that can be best served in an in-person environment.

Board Vice President Biz Lindsay-Ryan said, “This is an extremely difficult meeting, … but it’s an opportunity to reimagine how we as a community come together to lift each other up. So in thinking about the instruction that’s being given, if there’s any way that we can create some sort of community building uniformity around the lessons that are being provided by school, by grade, I think it will enable parents to support one another to have neighbors be able to talk about the same thing.

I’ve heard of school districts that are reading the same book, you know, finding creative ways to foster community for a very difficult time that our community is going through.”

She echoed what some other Board members said about this being an opportunity. “We don’t have to go back to flawed systems. We haven’t served our black and brown children the way that we need to.”

She added that she would like very clear metrics defining when the District would return to in-person instruction.

Board member Sergio Hernandez supported the comments about reimagining education. He said the District’s children have the innate talents, resources, drive and resilience to be productive citizens in society.

Board President Anya Tanyavutti said, “I really encourage us to think about how we incorporate the current context of social unrest in our country into those conversations, into those learning experiences, including when we’re reflecting on trauma, and how to have trauma-informed responses. The type of racial, ethnic, economic exclusion, animus to the LGBT TQ community that we’re seeing on a national level is traumatic.

“And I think it’s traumatic to everyone, it’s an assault on all of our humanity and our human tendency to be connected with one another. We have the opportunity to learn how to respond to this differently with children and inspire them to and to know that we are safeguarding their humanity. And that we’re not going to turn a blind eye to the traumatic things that are happening.”

She added that she would like to see what the protocols are if a person tested positively for COVID-19, what the metrics are to begin in-person learning at the schools, and how the District would be paying attention to the social and emotional learning of children who are transitioning to kindergarten, sixth grade or the high school .



Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...