‘Giving it a shot is the best plan’: Teachers, parents react to District 186′s in-person model

By Steven Spearie
The State Journal-Register

Posted Aug 8, 2020 at 5:29 PM
At some points last spring when Springfield School District 186 was forced to go to remote learning by the directive of Gov. JB Pritzker as safety issues swirled around the COVID-19 outbreak, Diana Stewart of Springfield had seven students in her house vying for screen time.

Neighbor kids had trickled into Stewart’s house because hot spots in their own homes had faltered and Stewart had an internet connection.

The district had tried to get them operating, but it proved spotty, so Stewart’s house — four of her own grandchildren live with her and attend District 186 schools — became a congregation place.

Now, five months later, parents, guardians and other caretakers across the district face a monumental question: send their kids to school under the hybrid/blended model which would include two-days of in-person instruction combined with remote learning or keep them in their homes with strictly remote learning?

For Stewart, a self-described “stay-at-home grandma,” the decision was made a little easier because one grandson has asthma and another has a sensory perception disorder.

“I think it’s a lot safer doing remote learning,” Stewart maintained. “The kids want to go back to school. They want to see their friends, they want to see their teachers.

“I would rather be safe at home. The kids are going to learn. We’ll follow the guidelines they have for them and then just go month-by-month. If (the number of cases) goes down, then I’ll send them to school. If not, they’re still learning, but they’re at home.”

The school board’s approval of the hybrid/blended model came as the number of positive cases in Sangamon County has spiked and the positivity rate climbed to 6.2 percent and is expected to go up further.

The vote and its 4-3 outcome didn’t come without some hand-wringing. As a preface to the vote, an amendment proffered to start all students with remote learning went down with a same 4-3 result.

Board members also heard that Superintendent Jennifer Gill was part of a town hall meeting with other school superintendents, medical professionals and representatives from the Sangamon County Department of Public Health last Saturday. Nine of the 11 medical representatives, Gill told the board Monday, advised schools to open the year with remote-only learning.

One superintendent, Jill Larson of New Berlin, directly cited the meeting as the reason that the district will start all students with remote learning.

Meanwhile, the Springfield Roman Catholic Diocese will open all of its 43 schools to in-person learning with about half of them offering remote learning as an option, said a diocesan spokesman.

Teachers and parents remain passionate about their views, though acknowledging choices on both sides are good.

Joby Crum said he’s looking forward to having the opportunity to go back to Springfield High School and teach honors algebra II and advanced statistics in person.

Crum said he has no qualms about sending his two sons to SHS, either.

“You have risks every time you drive your car,” Crum pointed out. “I understand that there might be some risk to going back. I feel comfortable going back into the classroom, but I can’t speak for everybody.

“Having kids try to learn while you can’t see their reaction or being able to instantly ask a question, it’s not the same.”

Mary Farnsworth, who teaches students with special needs at Enos Elementary School, sees another side.

“To jeopardize one person, much less an entire classroom, an entire school bus, an entire building or a wing of a building with cross-contamination that is very possible just does not appear to be worth it,” Farnsworth said.

Carol Hill said she was ready to sign up her son, a freshman at Southeast High School, for the hybrid/blended model.

“He wanted strictly remote,” Hill said about the change. “He doesn’t want to be exposed to anything. He’s concerned about it.

“I think the hybrid (model) is safe.”

Irma Lott-Hart, who retired from teaching at Wilcox School in 2010, said she will guide her three grandchildren and one great-grandchild through remote learning.

“Classroom attendance, it’s good for the kids. It’s good for the teachers and it’s good for the parents,” said Lott-Hart. “But is it healthy? Sometimes good isn’t always healthy. You have to look at the whole entire picture and you have to ask a lot of questions.

“We do not have a complete picture as far as what’s going to happen (inside the classroom). Go back to remote learning.”

Crum said the thing that gets lost in everything is “the mental state of mind the kids had in the spring. I think there was a lot of damage done to kids socially and emotionally by not having them be at school.”

Kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, Crum added, “kind of need to be in school. It’s one thing to forfeit a quarter, but to have them all doing it remotely this year and who knows for the foreseeable future that’s a huge sacrifice to make as well.”

Farnsworth, who has requested to teach remotely partly because of her own special needs son, said educators were trying to minimize the trauma students have already been through by having to go to different forms of learning.

While remote learning “will never quantitatively or qualitatively match in-person learning,” it is a start, she said.

“With the resources teachers share with each other, we are definitely providing quality instruction to these students,” Farnsworth added. “I don’t want to risk (my son’s) safety or anyone else’s safety when he can receive a decent if not comparable quality education through different forms of media.”

Krista Bivens has three children — an eighth-grader, a fifth-grader and a pre-schooler — returning to St. Agnes Grade School. She is confident they will be in a safe environment.

“They’ve done an excellent job at coming up with guidelines to protect children and the staff,” Bivens said. “The goal is to stay in school as they safely can. That might change, but we’re praying for the best.”

Kids need socialization, Bivens added, but they also realize that the restrictions the school has in place aren’t punitive, but rather “to keep them safe.”

As far as heading back to the classroom, Joby Crum said that teaching with a mask on will prove challenging, as will shepherding students through the same amount of coursework given abbreviated schedules.

Students, Crum added, might not get to take particular electives depending on whether they or teachers are in-person or remote.

“Those are the decisions that are going to be tough,” he added.

One person who won’t be stepping back into the classroom is Irma Lott-Hart. She used to volunteer at Wilcox and sometimes filled in as a substitute teacher.

“I would be putting myself at jeopardy (if I went back),” said Lott-Hart, 72.

There are other “stakeholders” at jeopardy, too, she admonished.

“You have compromised teachers who are at risk,” Lott-Hart pointed out. “You have compromised staff. You have a lot of older teachers. It’s a hardship on them.

“Children are bringing the virus home to maybe young mothers who are pregnant, older parents, grandparents, caregivers.”

Lott-Hart said that when she was in the classroom teaching, “we disinfected pencils. We disinfected crayons, tables on a daily basis. Kindergartners carry a lot of germs. The disinfectant has to be done every day, not every other day. Every single day.”

For Diana Stewart, there were too many questions on the table regarding sending her grandchildren — two at Harvard Park Elementary School and two at Jefferson Middle School — back in-person.

Still, Stewart likes the fact that the hybrid/blended model is in place and further knows that not every family has a situation comparable to hers.

It’s toughest, Stewart said, watching her two youngest grandchildren — a second-grader and a third-grader — navigate through things.

“They don’t understand you can’t run and hug your friends, you can’t high-five them and you can’t get real close to them,” Stewart said. “We went to school (recently) and they wanted to hug the teachers they haven’t seen since March, but its like, no, you can’t.

“With this virus you can’t take a chance.”

The hybrid/blended plan won’t be perfect, Crum said, but it is manageable.

“There will be bumps in the road,” he said. “There will be schools that shut down. But I think giving it a shot is the best plan.”

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