On May 17, School District 65 administrators presented their Return to School Plan for the 2021-2022 school year to members of the School Board.

District 65 schools are scheduled to open for in-person learning for five full days a week at all grade levels, beginning on Wednesday, Aug. 25. The JEH Early Childhood Center is scheduled to open Wednesday, Sept. 1.

Under the plan there will also be a rigorous virtual learning pathway, primarily for students who cannot return for in-person learning, prioritizing those with medical conditions. It will have limited capacity. 

Superintendent Devon Horton said the District’s Return Plan prioritizes in-person learning, focuses on mental health and a successful transition back to in-person learning, provides interventions and academic supports for students not yet at grade level, and is aligned with the recommendations and the latest guidance related to health and safety measures.

[Update: The Illinois State Board of Education adopted a Resolution on May 19 that all students must fully resume in-person learning in the 2021-22 school year. Remote learning is allowed on a very limited basis. Dr. Horton said on May 21, “Our team is currently reviewing this guidance and the potential impact on our plans for a virtual learning pathway intended to serve a limited number of students.”]

The Transition – Welcoming Students Back

Terrance Little, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools, said each school will focus on the transition back to in-person learning, recognizing that some students have been learning in a remote setting for more than a year and some returned in February to a hybrid model.

Mr. Little said starting in the summer each school leadership team will develop a four-week return to school plan that will:  

  • Develop opportunities to host summer building tours and orientations for students,
  • Establish school norms, values and expectations and develop student ownership in the school,
  • Orient new and returning students to the routines and shared practices in the building,
  • Create a sense of community that honors the differences found within the student body while promoting school spirit and vision, and
  • Establish academic and social-emotional (SEL) goal setting as a shared priority across the District for all students.

Stacy Beardsley, District 65 Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, said she wanted to underscore what Mr. Little said. “The first step is that we need to ensure that we have safe learning environments, strong social emotional learning, and that we welcome our children back in a strong manner.  We need our kids in and part of affirming learning communities.”

Instruction and Accelerating Learning

Mr. Little said, “Students will be fully engaged in all areas including core subjects and specials, so you can expect a full day of learning as we have seen in the past.”

“We’re going to be focused on grade level learning. And that focus will be academic and SEL. We understand that right now researchers are saying that we’re having more mental health issues with our students than ever before, so we definitely want to make sure that we are proactive instead of reactive,” Mr. Little added.

“We really are working strongly to ensuring that every single child will have full access to high-quality grade-level instruction all year long,” said Dr. Beardsley. “And part of our planning process will be to build off of some of the strong practices from this year.

“Educators have done a phenomenal job of really identifying and prioritizing the most powerful priority learning standards and focusing on that learning and realizing what unfinished learning we need to layer in and adjust in a timely manner, so that our students can access that grade-level learning.”

Dr. Beardsley added, “Some of our students have really developed strong senses of self-agency and independence over the past year, and we want to be clear with our learners about where they are … and have ownership in helping to build out some of those individualized learning plans and pathways to get ourselves to grade level and beyond.

“Additionally, we will be really looking at building in small group or individual one-to-one supports for students that need additional support for off-grade level learning.”

Dr. Horton likewise said interventions and academic supports will be provided for students not yet at grade level.

Mr. Little said, “The District has learned some things during COVID. We came up with some good technology practices and things of that nature, so we will definitely be incorporating those practices in our new approach.”

The District plans to continue one-on-one technology and to provide Chromebooks to 3rd to 5th graders and iPads to K to 2nd and 6th to 8th graders, provide new educator computers, make hot spots available to families in need of internet access, and explore with the City and ETHS how WiFi can be expanded for families needing access.

“We also are expecting that in the fall we will return to full fine art specials and physical education classes,” said Mr. Little.

The District’s plan contains one section that focuses on a comprehensive approach to mental health. One initiative is to use an SEL screener to identify students who may need additional support with social-emotional skills and competencies, and then to design interventions tailored to assist the student. The plan would also add guidance counselors at the middle school level.

The District will continue with its special education and its emergent bilingual programs.

Masks and Social Distancing

Andalib Khelghati, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, said the District has been looking at its school buildings and grounds in an effort to maximize the use of space so all students who want to return to school for in-person learning can do so.

He said they have been paying attention to “three feet social distancing. Those guidelines are in place and will continue.” He said six feet would be the practice when students or staff are not wearing masks, such as when eating or napping.

“Students and staff will continue to wear masks. That’s an expectation” unless the guidelines change, he said.

Because more students will be returning for in-person learning in the fall, Mr. Little said, “We want to maximize our classrooms space by purchasing equipment to ensure that we’re maximizing the number of students that we can fit inside of the classroom, within three feet, social distancing. We’re also making sure that that furniture is something that we can use after COVID.”

He added that administrators, principals, and the buildings and grounds department are examining how to maximize space both inside and outside the buildings, and they are consulting with the District’s Medical Advisory Team in this process.  

Breakfast and Lunch

Raphael Obafemi, Chief Financial and Operations Officer, said with more students returning to school in the fall, the District will need to be flexible to provide eating space while maintaining the six-foot social distance guidelines.

Students will eat in classrooms, cafeterias, of gymnasiums – depending on the size of cafeteria spaces, timing of lunch periods, and the number of students at the schools. Heated, enclosed outdoor options are being considered.

“But the critical thing is that in doing this, safety and health are going to be in the forefront of how we deal with this,” said Mr. Obafemi.

He said that every child who wants to eat will be able to do so without regard to the ability to pay. He added that unless different guidance is issued, “anytime a child is eating, we will maintain six feet social distance.”

The District’s plan says students will be offered breakfast as a “grab-n-go” and eaten in classrooms. Students wanting a hot lunch would pick it up at the cafeteria.


“Recess will continue to be held outdoors, as long as weather permits,” said Mr. Little.

“Use of playground equipment will be allowed. Face coverings are required during recess and outdoor activities, where social distancing cannot be maintained. During inclement weather students will be assigned to indoor spaces for recess. And those plans are developed school by school.”

Before and After School Activities

Dr. Latarsha Green, Deputy Superintendent, said, “We’re grateful to retain and enlist a few new partnerships to provide enrichment and or childcare supports for students. … What’s most important to know overall is that the program is expected to resume in person and adhere to all health safety guidelines.”

Mr. Little said, “We will have access to before- and after-school programs, which is what I love the most about middle schools – to keep those bodies moving. We do plan on having our before- and after-school activities according to all health and safety,” guidelines of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Bus Transportation

Bus transportation will continue to be provided to all eligible students. “And in doing that we are committed to making sure that we do it in a safe and effective way,” said Mr. Obafemi. “So, we have put some mitigation measures in place to ensure that children are transported safely.”

One critical thing, Mr. Obafemi said, is that every one of the bus drivers and aides will be trained on safety protocol. Another thing is that students will be assigned seats on all routes to help reduce the possibility that students will contract the virus while riding the bus.

He added that bus drivers, aides, and students must wear masks, temperature and symptom checks will be required daily to ride a bus, and frequently touched surfaces will be sanitized between routes.   

Field Trips

Mr. Khelghati said, “A lot of the important things that happen during the school day sometimes happen beyond the core instructional periods. And so, one of those is field trips. We decided that local trips would be permitted.”

He said it would be necessary, though, to be able to maintain the important guidelines around safety. As an example, he said a walking field trip to a neighboring park would be permitted. He added that a field trip that would require busing would be “much more difficult. We’re not really at the point right now where we believe that that will be a risk worth taking, given the guidelines.”

Other Mitigation Measures

In addition to wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, the District will use the following mitigation measures:

  • Sick students and staff must remain home,
  • Households must complete a daily health certification before leaving home (including a temperature check),
  • Students must use designated arrival entrances at the schools,
  • Non-essential visitors will not be allowed in the building (an approved official volunteer is permitted), and
  • Students should wash hands often and avoid touching their face.

The District said it will provide notifications of positive COVID cases and of general and close contacts. Contact tracing will be done in conjunction with the local health department. The number of COVID cases and quarantines will be posted on the District’s dashboard.

The District says it will follow IDPH’s guidelines for quarantining students and staff.

“We were successfully able to reduce the spread of COVID in schools by utilizing the known mitigation measures outlined here,” said Romy DeCristofaro, Assistant Superintendent of Special Services.  It is important to remember that our actions both in and outside of school are what will help keep schools safe and open for in person learning.

“Any spread that occurred this year has largely occurred outside of schools,” she said. “We will continue to follow IDPH guidelines and make adjustments as new guidance comes out.”

Preparing the Buildings

Mr. Obafemi said, “For the most part this year, we’ve been very successful in opening schools.  …  The plan is for us to continue to do the same.”

He said signs will be displayed in hallways and stairways to help maintain social distancing. Water fountains have been decommissioned and water bottle filling stations will be available. Hand sanitizers are located throughout the buildings and classrooms.

A decision on whether to use lockers has not yet been made. “If we decide not to allow lockers to be used, … we will provide individual storage bins for personal items to be put in,” Mr. Obafemi said.

Ventilation upgrades have been made. “We’ve increased the capacity of fresh air coming into the building to the maximum of 30%, which is what is required to keep the buildings safe,” Mr. Obafemi said.  He added that the District has upgraded air filters to allow more fresh air in the buildings, and that they will keep abreast of any developments in air ventilation to make the buildings safe. 

The Virtual Learning Pathway

“As we began our plan for the fall of next year, we recognized that there would still be potentially some students who would have a significant need in terms of health concerns,” said Dr. Khelghati. “So, it was important for us to consider what would those options be if there was no presence of a vaccine, and those children for a number of reasons may not be able to go back in person.

“And for that reason, we’ve identified what we’re calling the District 65 Virtual Learning Pathway. We’ve thought about really developing this as a model, where at a site, virtual site, we’ll call it, we would be able to accommodate a schooling experience for those students, where those children would be able to participate in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, in the most robust virtual learning experience that really draws on the expectations of what we’re looking for in the in-person learning, but really caters to a virtual space.”

Dr. Khelghati distinguished the virtual learning pathway from the remote learning provided this school year: “The delivery of learning in this arena will be one where we’re really thinking about what’s best for those students in those learning spaces, versus this year where we really worked hard to do the best we could, but we were really using an in-person model in a virtual space.”

Dr. Khelghati said the desire is to “ensure that there’s really growth at a significant rate that at least matches if not surpasses what happens in-person.”

He added, “We will also be focused on creating a virtual community experience where those children have a sense of this culture of the school, this virtual school, where there’s a sense of connection between students between teaching staff, and really the fellow students in that learning experience across grade levels. We expect that there will be some limited experiences for students in terms of before or after school.”

Dr. Khelghati discussed the criteria to participate in the virtual learning pathway. He said, “There is a Resolution to ensure that everybody returns to in-person learning next year at the State level. And so, we know that this may impact significantly the kind of criteria we have for who can be participating in this program.

“So, we’re really thinking about what are the criteria for those individuals who want to participate in this program, especially if we see that there’s a higher demand for the seats in this program. We’re really looking to make this a cost-neutral program. And so, for that reason, it’s really important to manage the size of it.

The criteria stated in the District’s plan are:

  • A documented 504, IEP, or student health plan with their home school, which indicates that there is a medical condition that limits the child’s ability to return to onsite learning.
  • Other factors will be considered including student engagement, academic progress, and attendance during virtual learning.
  • An additional limited number of seats may be available by lottery for parent/caregivers who prefer this option for their students.

The virtual pathway will receive students only on the first day of a new trimester unless the student is new to the District. A student may exit the virtual pathway at any time.

[Update: ISBE adopted a Resolution on May 19., which requires schools to return to in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year, and the Resolution limits who may participate in remote learning. Dr. Horton said on May 21, “Our team is currently reviewing this guidance and the potential impact on our plans for a virtual learning pathway intended to serve a limited number of students.”]

New Guidance or a New Surge in COVID

District administrators said the Return-to-School plan is based on current guidance, and they will adjust it if new guidance is issued and it is warranted.

They added that they will also be prepared to shift back to remote learning if there is a resurgence in the virus and it is warranted to protect the health and safety of students.

Board Member Comments

Members of the School Board asked many questions and made suggestions.

Donna Wang Suasked if teachers or staff would be required to be vaccinated.

Dr. Horton said, “We can’t legally require them to do that.”

Mr. Obafemi added, “The vaccine, as it stands right now, has a conditional approval on it. So, we can’t mandate anyone to get it. Now, once that goes away, our Medical Advisory Team says that changes the game. What can then happen is we can require folks to be vaccinated.”

Ms. Su also asked if there was assigned seating on buses this year. Mr. Obafemi said there was, but there were not aides on all buses, and if there was not an aide on the bus, it was not feasible to enforce the assigned seating. He said the plan was to provide aides for the buses this coming school year who could enforce the assigned seating. In response to question, he said the District was exploring an app that parents could use to track where a bus was on the route.

Board member Soo La Kim asked if vaccinations became broadly available for K-8 students, how would impact the reopening plan?

Dr. Horton said, “We’ll stick with guidance from the CDC.” He added that vaccinations are not mandated at this time, and there is no way to know for sure if someone is vaccinated.  So, it’s hard to make adjustments in that context, he said.

Board Vice President Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan noted that a significant amount of guidance changed last week. She asked the District to consider how it might change its plan depending on how guidance may change in the future and how the District would advise the community and how quickly it would advise the community if changes were made.

After discussion, members of the Board appeared to concur that an agenda item for each of its meetings would be to advise about any changes to the Return-to-School plan. Dr. Horton also said that in the past year he kept the community advised of changes through weekly letters, which he could do in the coming school year.

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...