Teachers have their own concerns as District 186 grapples with in-person learning


By Steven Spearie
The State Journal-Register

Posted Jul 6, 2020 at 5:51 PM
Updated Jul 7, 2020 at 3:07 PM

Jill Friday spent 10 years teaching for Illinois Virtual High School. Among her students were a U.S. Olympic athlete and a terminally ill teenager.

Friday, who begins teaching Spanish at Southeast High School in the fall, said Springfield School District 186 has the opportunity to fully embrace online learning as a group of cabinet-level personnel and others from the district and the Springfield Education Association meet to decide what school might look like come Aug. 24.

“This is the time to open the door to progress,” Friday insisted.

The Illinois State Board of Education issued a 63-page guideline for all the state’s school districts on June 23, but each school district has to come up with its own plan. The guideline included the OK for school districts to have in-person attendance, but it is also subject to change, especially if the state sees a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.

The task force, called 186 Learns, will confab Tuesday and Wednesday (July 7/8) to design a plan of action. The idea is to present the plan at the July 20 school board meeting.

While teachers admit to missing their students, some are not exactly enamored at the notion of heading back into classroom settings in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Concerns run from keeping masks on students to changing classrooms to teachers’ own health.

Schools were ordered to stop in-person learning and adapt remote learning in mid-March when numbers from the coronavirus started to rise in the state. That meant District 186 teachers last saw their students in a classroom on March 13.

Some teachers like Sabrina Lee said the district might consider moving the start date back if in-person learning is agreed upon.

“I am nervous about going back,” admitted Lee, a fifth grade teacher at Harvard Park Elementary. “I’m concerned for the safety of everyone, not only staff, but students as well.

“I don’t know if we know all the information (about COVID-19) and other states are taking a pause or slowing down reopening. I believe District 186 has the best interests of everyone in mind, but it does make me wonder.”

Lee’s other concerns ranged from substitute teachers to lunch and recess to students going to different classrooms.

“For music, PE and art, what does that mean?” Lee said. “Will teachers come to us? Is lunch going to be in the classroom?”

District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill, in a June 24 interview, acknowledged that the most difficult aspect is the daily operation of the district’s education sites, all with different size classrooms, hallways and cafeterias.

Friday, who also had experience teaching at the middle school level with the district, said she would prefer the district maintain online learning or at least some hybrid instruction, perhaps with an in-person “office hours” concept.

Friday said she is a proponent of “robust online learning. I’m not interested in giving free passes to kids. It can be done. This is the chance (for teachers) to stand up for what’s right.”

While teachers were allowed to use online platforms like Google Classroom and Seesaw, the district did make an investment in purchasing Canvas. Teacher training was optional during the spring and it hasn’t been mandated over the summer, Friday said.

“I’ve been wondering why we haven’t been doing training online this summer,” Friday said. “We have to have a response to be ready next time (we go online).”

“I’m not the biggest fan of online learning,” Lee said. “Can kindergartners get on Zoom calls? My student engagement (the last month of online learning) was not very good or what was to be expected. Some cared less (because they knew they didn’t have repercussions grade-wise).

“I understand both sides of going back.”

If the district does go back to in-person learning, more mundane things get magnified, Lee said.

“We have kids,” she said, “who show up as sick as dogs at school because there are no other options. Sometimes, we have kids get sick in the middle of the day and sit in the (school) office until someone comes to pick them up.

“Now there are a lot of worries in that.”

Then there is the issue of face masks. The ISBE guidelines state that all individuals in school buildings serving students from prekindergarten through 12th grade must wear a face mask at all times, with limited exceptions, even when social distancing is maintained.

“Can we force students to wear masks?” Lee said. “If a student is refusing to wear a face mask and doesn’t have a medical reason, I have concerns about being around them.

“It’s a tricky situation.”

“I can’t think of the logistics,” Friday added, “of giving sterilized masks to every single kid.

“I love my students and I want to be with them. It’s heartbreaking. But given the situation, the best way I can help them is online.”

Contact Steven Spearie: 622-1788, sspearie@sj-r.com, twitter.com/stevenspearie.