An all-remote start to the 2020-2021 school year wasn't Plan A for Flossmoor elementary schools, but so far so good, according to officials.
“We really did have a positive start,” Superintendent Dana Smith told members of the District 161 Board of Education at its Monday, Aug. 31, special meeting. “A number of things went really well last week.”
Among the successes: A estimated 97 percent attendance rate across the first week of school, which resumed Aug. 24 after new state guidelines forced the schools to scrap starting the year with a hybrid learning option available to families. Staff made calls that week to anyone who had not connected, Smith said.
Board Member Stephen Paredes noted some parents said they did not know Flossmoor schools had started. He said some of the confusion is that the district gets lumped in with other local districts, and families think they are all on the same plan and timeline.
“Part of it is, I think, a communication issue, which I do think we’ve done well,” Paredes said. “I would hate for kids to get left behind.”
Amabel Crawford, Parker Junior High principal, noted that going into Week 2 the district has at least touched base with all absent families and communication has generally been good.
“We don’t have anyone where we just don’t know where they are,” Crawford said. “That’s really not the issue. We’re dealing with some social-emotional issues with logging in.”
Smith added that staff should consider the student's circumstances. For example, there might be family issues, mental health concerns or other forms of crisis related to the pandemic serving as a roadblock to attendance.
“The students who are left that we’re not connecting with, there could be a deeper issue,” he said.
School Board President Michelle Hoereth said many parents could be facing the same issues.
“For some, that could have led to a little bit of anxiety going into the first day,” she said. “As much as we’re checking in on students who might not be as present as we’d like. It might also be good to check in on parents. We need parents to know it’s okay if they don’t have it all figured out.”
Smith said the district has received a lot of feedback that's mostly focused on schedules and timing, particularly in grades K-2.
“We do have to look at our K-2 screen time we’re providing for those students,” Smith said. “Of course, we have to stick with state guidelines, but I think there are some changes we can make to take some pressure off our youngest ones.”
Smith noted a survey will be going out during Week 3. The initial feedback has been that some of the younger children are having a hard time staying focused after lunch.
“We have to figure out the K-2 screen time,” Smith said. “That was probably our biggest deficit of the week. … It’s probably a combination of limiting screen time and making sure when we have the kids on, we’re being efficient.”
Board member Christina Vlietstra wondered if there might be a different way to structure the week for younger children, such as possibly giving them a day off on Friday to catch up, essentially giving them the chance to stretch out work over more of the week.
The superintendent said the district will need to continue working on the issue because "it’s hard to give up 20 percent of our instruction, is what it comes down to.” He noted the remote plan has been modeled on a typical school year. “If we’re going to trim up that K-2 schedule, we’re also going to need to trim up our expectations. … I think that’s part of the balance.”
Hoereth suggested the district solicit surveys from parents as well as the students, because their experiences might be different.
“Before any tweaks are made on the K-2 schedule, it might be helpful to hear just a little bit of feedback from parents,” she said.
Board Member David Linnear suggested giving the community a little more time to get into the school year before sending surveys. He said he worried immediate responses might be a little more emotional rather than logical if the district waits.
Hoereth said it is important they continue to gauge responses from teachers as well. She noted that while some teachers might be okay now, they could need assistance later. The district needs to make sure teachers feel like the administration is approachable, should things change.
“Have we successfully created a culture where that’s okay?” Hoereth asked.
Smith noted officials are also talking with Homewood School District 153, which started one week later, about what has gone well and what has not. They plan to continue sharing information with District 153 as well as Homewood-Flossmoor High School.
“As we do that, we should continue to be aligned and on the same page,” he added.
Smith noted in a report to the board that the option to return for in-person learning may not be available until the start of the second quarter on Oct. 19. The report also outlines what various departments are doing to further progress on the district’s plan.
“Last week was our first full week, so obviously some kinks have to be ironed out,” Smith said.