At the April 26 School Board meeting, District 65 administrators laid out the broad parameters of a plan to provide all students an opportunity to attend school for in-person learning in the 2021-2022 school year, and to provide an option for remote learning.

LaTarsha Green, Deputy Superintendent, provided a written report to the Board which she said summarized six 90-minute brainstorming sessions of administrators. “The report captures our best thinking at the time, and ideas when permitted ‘to dream or reimagine,'” she said.

The planning sessions were held before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its recommendation that schools maintain a social distance from six feet to three feet. So, some aspects of the written report are based on a key assumption that has since changed.

Dr. Green said that administrators would bring “a more comprehensive plan” to the School Board on May 17.

Melissa Messenger, Director of Communications, said, “There’s not overly specific details about the return plan. We really are looking at a full return to in-person learning, with health and safety measures in place, of course, to protect our students and staff, but also that virtual learning option. We recognize that some of these changes are going to require a pretty detailed communication plan.”

The Calendar

Beatrice Davis, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, said the calendar committee decided that for the 2021-2022 school year, “we were going to try and keep things very similar. But we also made a commitment that we would come together in May … and start discussing the out years, so the 2022-2023 calendar and one year beyond, and look at ways where we can make sure we are allowing for our students to get the most benefit from the academic school calendar.”

Raphael Obafemi, Chief Financial and Operations Officer, said there was not enough time to make significant changes to the calendar for the 2021-22 school year. He added that the District would give families an opportunity to provide input on any significant changes for future years.  

A Virtual School Option

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Andalib Khelghati said, “As part of our design process, we’ve been paying close attention to the importance of lifting what we’re calling a virtual school option for any student who may not be able to return to in-person learning for the school year 2021-22. We understand the uniqueness of the dynamic nature of this pandemic. And so we recognize that this may have to be a reality for some of our families. To that end, it was important for us to think about that virtual option and what that would look like for those who cannot return.”

Dr. Khelghati said administrators brought together a small group of stakeholders to think about what the important elements of a virtual learning option would be.

He reiterated, “Our goal is to have as many, if not everybody, returning to five days a week in-person learning.”

Priorities and Accelerating Learning

Dr. Green said some priorities for next year include:

  • a comprehensive plan for mental health supports, including guidance counselors for middle school grades;
  • a commitment to a monthly two-way communication process for students, families, staff, and community members, including the Medical Advisory Group, to provide updates and feedback on the school year;
  • clearly articulated training plans for responsive classrooms, restorative practices, nonviolent communication, and bullying prevention.

Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, discussed how the District plans to accelerate learning. She said, “As we look forward, we need to be strategic and disciplined. As we work to accelerate learning for our students over the next several years, it’s critical to realize the most important thing that we can do is to ensure that all our students are engaged in differentiated and rigorous learning tasks in the environment that is going to best support their learning in the upcoming year. That includes building student independence and agency. And it’s leading to get all of our students to the point of meeting or exceeding grade level expectations.

“Core elements for acceleration of learning in the upcoming year and years include: One, building off some of the successes from the past year. It’s important to hold that in the midst of challenges, we’ve all grown tremendously. And our educators and students have found strategies that are effective and should continue in our learning spaces on site, or virtually.

“Some of these successes include truly elevating the importance of social-emotional learning. Our K-5 spaces have committed to daily morning meetings every single day this year to connect. Finding ways to continue those in our practices on site and virtually are fundamental and important. The foundation to acceleration must include deep attention to social emotional learning and the building of strong safe learning environments.

“A second success to build off of is the strengthening of the range of our instructional technology tools, tools that are available to educators and students that have proven to be highly successful. There are others that we know we need to weed out and move away from.

“But our educators and our students have truly deepened their ability to use technology to support learning in ways that have increased student agency and independence, and have allowed students to pursue some avenues of personalization of learning. We need to be able to carry some of these practices forward with us. And those will support some of our acceleration of student learning.

“Two other additional strengths to build on are, we want to continue the strengthening of students’ abilities to manage their learning with increased independence. We have to honor that our students have done incredible work and made incredible effort over the past year in difficult conditions. We need to see these strengths and those capacities and include those skills in our design for next year, and future learning.

“And finally, even in the midst of all of this, communicating with our families and strengthening our partnership around the most important learning has grown tremendously. And we heard that in an early childhood report earlier this year. So we want to continue to think about how we use the different venues and avenues to strengthen our families’ connections and shared learning responsibility and understanding of what’s important in what we’re asking kids to be able to master and secure.

“As we think about acceleration, we will deliver on this commitment through differentiated and rigorous instruction, both on site and virtually. And that’s instruction for all students.

“Our work next year must also include monitoring and supporting that instruction for all students, our tier one instruction, as well as the intervention work through our intervention redesign and tier two and tier three. This support needs to be responsive, and we will assess and adjust those interventions and needs as students return and begin to really re-establish where they are in their learning trajectories. We must be responsive. And we must include professional learning in the form of coaching, workshops, and peer feedback.

“And finally, we will ensure that students who most need support receive Interventions and supports within our school day, while also providing options beyond the school day in the school year, as you saw with some of the expansion of summer learning. We need to own that this is work that has begun, will continue next year and needs to be a commitment and a focus over the next several years to really truly support our students and our families,” said Dr. Beardsley.

Outdoor Spaces

Mr. Obafemi said the District is considering using outdoor spaces and had purchased tents to facilitate outdoor learning.  He said, “We are working to get the technology infrastructure routers, and to be able to provide the required feed to be able to have classes in those outdoor spaces. We’ve had the opportunity to do more planning to be able to get that done for the start of the next year.”

Board Comments

Board President Anya Tanyavutti said, “I just want to drive home that when you all say, ‘virtual option,’ that is a virtual option for families that feel that virtual is what they need, in terms of education for their children during a global pandemic?”

Superintendent Devon Horton said, “That is correct, yes.”

Ms. Tanyavutti continued, “But full day in-person opportunities will be available five days a week?”

“Absolutely,” said Dr. Horton.

Board member Joey Hailpern suggested that the District plan for contingencies, such as the possibility of needing to close down in-person learning.

Dr. Horton said, “It’s what we’re doing now, Joey. We are building our plan. And part of that plan will be if we have to revert back to full remote. We will have that ready to share with you all in next month’s meeting.”

Board Vice President Biz Lindsay-Ryan said she wanted more specificity. She said she knew that the plan now was general, but she wanted more details on “what reentry will look like.” She added she wanted to hear more about the plans for emergent bilinguals, and for special education students, particularly for students who struggled with the remote learning option. She said she wanted to know more about how the remote option would work, whether there would be quarterly opt-out periods, what the outdoor option would look like, and how many schools would need outdoor space if the spacing requirement between students is three feet; and what are all the logistical requirements to provide a safe learning environment in an outdoor space.

Dr. Horton said the details would be provided to the Board at the May meeting. At that meeting, he said, administrators would bring to the Board the actual return-to-school plan in full with the details laid out. He said administrators would also present a resolution for the Board to vote on to approve the full plan.

Board member Suni Kartha said she thought the use of outdoor spaces was a good idea, but said it was essential that the District ensure that students, especially the youngest learners, were safe in outdoor learning spaces.

Ms. Kartha also said if gyms and music rooms were used as preparation spaces, what happens to gym and music classes? She said she thought it was important to preserve gym and music.

Board member Soo La Kim said, “I think one of the advantages of this transparency and sharing the compression planning details now is that we get to see all the logistical considerations that have to go into such a plan and the questions that we need answers to. And I think that’s often what’s hidden in administrative work. … So, thank you for sharing that and being open about that process.

Ms. Kim added, “I know there’s been a lot of conversations, especially from educators and psychologists and mental health experts, about the dangers of simply emphasizing learning loss and the deficits that we have to address, and instead building on those strengths and really building on what our children have learned in this year. I really appreciated seeing that reflected in your planning, in your priorities.

“I think what’s really important for all of us and our families to keep in mind is that children don’t stop learning because the world stops in certain ways. So, we really have to take into account what is it that they learned? And how do we help them process what they learned and the kind of emotional challenges that they’ve had to grapple with?  I really liked the emphasis on social-emotional learning. I think that’s going to be critical. I look forward to seeing the details of that as we move forward.”

Board member Rebeca Mendoza said the District has some beautiful schools with wide open spaces. She encouraged administrators to look at what other school districts have done to use outdoor spaces for learning.

She added, “We have to make sure that we have our community on board for whatever plan that we put out. And I’d also be curious to know what our medical advisory team is doing through this process and how we will get potentially more regular updates from that advisory committee so that parents could make an educated decision on what is best for their family for the next coming school year.”

Ms. Mendoza added, “We have a lot of families that aren’t with us this year, and who have to make the very difficult decisions on whether or not they will come back to us.” She said it was important to provide information in a readily available place for the community.

Larry Gavin

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...