Parents brings safety concerns about in-person learning to D161 board, request remote option

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Parents brings safety concerns about in-person learning to D161 board, request remote option

August 19, 2021 - 22:51
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Several parents this week continued to call for a remote learning option for the 2021-2022 school year, taking their concerns straight to the Flossmoor School District 161 Board of Education.

The comments came just three days into the new school year, with parents citing concerns about safety measures in schools as cases of COVID-19 are on the rise. In addressing the school board Monday, Aug. 16, during its regular meeting, parents called the plan created before the latest surge in cases outdated, because the Delta variant is said to be more easily spread and data are showing a bigger impact on children.

“Common sense would dictate we don’t want to put our children into a situation that might be harmful to them,” Yelene Modley said.

Modley said she was “very hopeful” at the district’s open house, but she did not send her child to kindergarten this past Thursday after seeing the COVID-19 cases on the rise and having concerns about social distancing in the schools. The plan in place seems to reflect two months ago, rather than now, she said, and the district should be finding ways to reduce density in the schools, especially in situations when masks are off.

“It really was alarming to me,” Modley said. “I just haven’t seen any innovative strategies to address the issues.”

Erika Schafer is the parent of a second-grader that she said she has not sent back to Western Avenue Elementary School this fall as she investigates private education options.

Schafer is part of a Facebook group known as Safe Return HF that formed just before the start of this school year. Parents want to see a remote option available to them, she said, and she thinks home is the best environment for her child at the moment.

“My son did well with remote learning,” she said.

Schafer said she understands some parents want their children in school, and the group is not advocating for a fully remote school year. But she thinks everyone would benefit from a reduction in density, and she shared concerns about social distancing, those younger than 12 years old who are unable to get vaccinations, the Delta variant and reports of spread among those who have been vaccinated.

“Mask wearing isn’t foolproof,” she said.

She also cited “confusion” over guidelines from the Illinois State Board of Education and whether they require medical necessity for schools to provide remote learning. District administrators said that leading up to this school year state guidelines dictate two conditions be met to provide remote learning this school year: that someone be ineligible for a vaccine and be in a position where they would have to quarantine. But Schafer has questioned that interpretation and said she wants to see the district being more cautious either way.

“Thus far, parents have not seen evidence of extreme caution in the schools,” Schafer said.

Roshunda Russell told the board the Safe Return HF group is “continuously growing” with “plenty of parents that feel the way I feel.” As an advocate for her son, she feels like she has been put in a position where not sending her son to school means leaving the district.

“We moved to this area for the education that the district provides, and I feel that we’ve been placed on an island because I chose not to send my child into a building that has a lot of people that could potentially cause him harm with the Delta variant, COVID and this virus,” Russell said. “I don’t understand why I cannot get access to virtual learning. … That’s all we’re asking is to allow us to protect our kids.”

Superintendent Dana Smith did not address specific concerns during the meeting but said parents had “a lot of good questions” to which he would respond the following day.

“Certainly, it’s emotional,” Smith said. “This is a topic we take very seriously — the safety of our students, our staff members and our community.”

Following the meeting, Smith told the Chronicle that the Delta variant is definitely on administrators’ radar and being considered as the school year progresses.

“It’s something we have to take very seriously,” Smith said. “We know that the numbers don’t lie. The science behind the Delta variant shows us that it’s impacting kids at a higher rate, and we know that we have had kids and staff members impacted already. We really have to follow all those cautions with fidelity. We have to do everything we can with physical distancing.”

The biggest concerns for District 161 are places like the cafeteria, where schools see their largest groups together outside of bus transportation, Smith said. Administrators are trying to get additional people to help with the situation but has faced a “staffing challenge,” with positions posted that have gone unfilled, he said. They are “trying to be creative” by making additional space in the cafeteria, allowing outdoor eating when possible and utilizing classrooms, too.

“All those kinds of things come down to supervision and logistics,” Smith said. “We’re just trying to work through those pieces. Now that we’re in Day 3, we have a good idea of how the pieces are working and we’ll make any adjustments possible.”

Smith said 7 to 10 parents have reached out regarding remote learning or concerns about in-person learning, and he has been part of email chains, Zoom meetings and more to address them.

“They are all thoughtful,” Smith said. “They are all focused on keeping their children safe, and they all want great outcomes for our district. I want to figure out a way to work with those families to do everything we can to support them and certainly their children.”

But Smith said he has not heard anything from the state board changing its perspective on remote learning, despite the recent shift in numbers with the Delta variant. District 161 remains open to the possibility of remote learning, but parents have to understand it cannot be for a week or two, as some suggested, he said.

“It’s always something we can look at if we have the flexibility to do that,” he said. “The challenge becomes the length of time people are willing to be in it. … It’s going to be a multi-month commitment if we make that decision to offer a remote learning program. And if we had the ability to do so, we would certainly have those conversations.”

Other Business

  • The school board voted 5-0 to approve a 2021-2020 School Reopening Plan/ESSER III Timeline, required to receive a third round of federal funding through the CARES Act. The district is expecting an allocation of $2.84 million. According to a report from Amabel Crawford, the district’s director of learning and instruction, district leadership will review data from ESSER II funding to make recommendations for how ESSER III can be implemented in the 2022-2023 school year.
  • The school board voted 5-0 to approve streaming technology improvements at a cost of $28,097 from Pentegra Solutions. The board, which previously discussed technology upgrades in May and July, is looking to increase transparency by continuing to stream meetings at a higher audio and video quality with new equipment. Board member Michael Rouse was absent.