On Friday, Oct. 9, Homewood District 153 finished the first week of Virtual Learning Academy, a special program designed to help specific students facing challenges with remote learning.
School began with all students attending online-only and has been in session for six weeks. Overall, parent and teacher surveys show things are going well, but after the first two weeks, it became apparent to staff that some students weren’t being served, said Superintendent Dale Mitchell. Teachers, social workers and others recognized that a sliver of the student population needed a program that was going to give them the interactions and supervision that they needed.
Now 90 students — 30 per building — are getting assistance through the Virtual Learning Academy. The program is helping some special education students because “it’s really, really challenging for them to be remote,” Mitchell said. Another population needing support is the English learners, students for whom English is a second language.
And Mitchell said the academy is also helping students from the general student population. Some of those weren’t showing up for class or as engaged as they needed to be, or there were stresses at home with siblings and parent work issues. Staff wanted those students to be in school so that they got supervision and help with remote learning. They are doing remote instruction, like their peers, but there are staff members with them “monitoring their learning and giving them support,” he explained.
Teachers and staff will be assessing this program, but Mitchell said after the first week the reports were good. The district may bring more students to schools in early November.
The district has hired a few long-term substitutes to meet the needs of the Virtual Learning Academy. The district may need to hire additional staff, depending on how plans are modified, the superintendent said.
The district had planned to open with a mix of remote and hybrid in-person classes, but just before opening day, new health and safety protocols were released, forcing the school board to decide to open schools with a all-remote learning plan.
Mitchell said the district has everything in place to meet all the additional safety protocols “which is why we can bring kids back into the buildings.” He said parents must present a report on the child’s health each day and students, teachers and staff have temperature checks before they enter school buildings.
Teachers miss being in-person with their students, and students miss school and the interaction with their friends. The district is having outdoor band practice and may find a way to have some extracurricular programs be virtual.
The school board will make a decision in November or December on what school will look like in the second semester. Mitchell said COVID-19 infection numbers for Homewood and the South Suburbs will play a part in the decision, as will lessons from other neighboring districts that are using a modified in-person plan.
As of Sunday, the Cook County Department of Public Health reported that Homewood's case rate showed a 33-percent increase. Flossmoor's trend was going down at a 9 percent rate. That rate reflects a comparison of case counts from the past 14 days to the preceding 14-day period.
Most neighboring towns show roughly comparable trends to Homewood and Flossmoor, with the exception of Hazel Crest at an 80 percent increase and Chicago Heights at 90 percent. Glenwood was showing the greatest decrease at 47 percent.