Author: Steven Spearie – State Journal-Register
Published at 4:23 pm January 11, 2021
Brian Daugherty has a desk calendar hanging on his wall at home that has counted the days he’s been away from his Jefferson Middle School special education students in a classroom because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Tuesday, when Daugherty is set to rejoin them as a hybrid teacher, it will have been 320 days, he said.
“It’s like a journey to a new frontier,” Daugherty said. “It will be nice to see them again, without all of the white noise and distractions.”
About 44 percent of students from Springfield School District 186 have signed up to return to classrooms under the “hybrid model,” putting them in classrooms two days a week.
A more sizable portion of students is staying in the remote option for the second semester, which kicked off last week.
The district’s school board voted 4-3 at its Jan. 4 meeting to allow the return of students beginning Tuesday and in doing so, set aside a set of metrics or guidelines it had adopted in October and was under resolution to follow.
Board members cited the declining numbers of those metrics and the inability for some students to adapt to the remote style of learning as reasons they wanted to open up the hybrid model.
Meanwhile, the District 186 administrator in charge of overseeing that the 33 different campuses are set up for social distancing and that personal protective equipment (PPE) is in place, among other things, said Monday he felt good about the start of school.
“The school plans look really good and we really think things are in a good place and hope tomorrow comes quickly and we can get back to the classrooms,” said Jason Wind, the director of school of support.Get the Inside Illinois Politics newsletter in your inbox.
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Each school now has a set of isolation bays that have been constructed from full classrooms or other office space, Wind said, where students who are running temperature or answered positively to having one of the COVID-19 symptoms will go until they are sent home.
Another big change is that 76 new buses operated by First Student for District will be rolled out Tuesday. They are equipped with advanced tablet technology and audio programming that allows drivers to access important information, including the fastest routes.
In addition, the buses have WiFi camera systems, technology that enables parents to track their child’s bus and a web-based communication tool that helps efficiently track student conduct on school buses.
Nicholas Gilmore and his wife, Sandra, have been proponents of the hybrid model for their son, Sullivan, a seventh-grader at Franklin Middle School.
Part of that thinking has been informed by what Nicholas Gilmore has seen go on at St. Aloysius Grade School, where his oldest son, Nicholas, is an eighth-grader. Parochial schools like St. Aloysius have been meeting in-person since the start of the school year.
“We were able to see the mitigations that the school had put in the place, the safety measures, things like that that would help limit the spread and keep all the children safe,” Gilmore said. “When we saw what the parochial schools were able to do, that reinforced our decision for Sullivan.”
That included having six feet of spacing in each classroom and practicing social distancing even during lunch breaks, Gilmore said. The school enforces a mask policy 100% of the time, he added.https://0ffac379f0b1c4e432a519f6bee97019.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
During morning drop-off times, the school has designated locations based on where students are in the school, he said.
Aaron Graves, president of the Springfield Education Association, the 1,200-member teachers union, said some teachers who wanted to return under the hybrid model felt “duped” by the school board, thinking that return would be predicated on the health guidelines being met. Some of those teachers voiced those concerns by calling into the Jan. 4 school board meeting.
“They signed up,” Graves said, “under the impression that the district would follow the health guidelines and metrics they themselves established.”
Students who are returning to classrooms, Graves said, shouldn’t fully expect that there will be a live teacher for each period. Under a “hyper flex model,” a teacher who may be teaching remotely or from somewhere else physically, may be streamed into a classroom to students.
“This is elementary through high school. Whether it’s algebra or health class or fourth-grade music class they’re going to have a Max Headroom teacher,” said Graves, a reference to the mid-1980s artificial intelligence TV character.
While he is worried about teachers’ physical health, Graves said that he’s also worried that the job will become so complicated as they try to balance the digital and in-person world that “it will be too much for some of them.”
“I also worry we’re not able to meet parents’ or students’ expectations because of that and we want to. If there’s a disconnect and we can’t bridge that gap, I know the frustration falls to the classroom teacher and I think in this particular circumstance, that’s awfully false.”
Graves added that “several facilities and administrators are ill-prepared (for Tuesday).”
“Somebody who understands HVAC systems well or who’s driven around town and seen the age of our buildings and their conditions knows the buildings aren’t in top-notch conditions,” he said. “They’re not like hospitals or brand new schools where you have space and air filtration systems set up properly.”
The upside of the hybrid model, Graves said, is that for kids learning from a computer screen, it is difficult to feel that connection with a teacher “and I think it’s difficult for a lot of our teachers to connect with kids that way because it’s not their teaching style, just like it’s not somebody’s learning style.
“Almost all of our teachers exclusively became teachers because they wanted to help kids and they crave that social interaction or they would have pursued other work. Our teachers are social creatures. They love giving back. If parents feel good about that and kids feel good about that, then that’s a win.”
Wind said personnel on the district’s 33 different campuses were posting maximum occupancy signs Monday.
“This is nothing different than what we do every August where we would get to the day before school or the week before school, and we’d be working to fix schedules,” Wind said. “That’s what we’re dealing with right now. The concern is did we miss something in the odds and ends in trying to get school started. I’m sure there will be some things that come up, but it’s more a matter of making adjustments.
“The thing that gives me hope is that we’re headed into in-person instruction. We know that students need to be back in. We know that some students have struggled during this remote time, so getting students back for in-person is going to be valuable for them and it’s going to be valuable for teaching staff as well, so I’m very hopeful that we get back in and get off to a good start.”
Nicholas Gilmore said he is confident in his decision to send his son, Sullivan, back to school Tuesday.
“I think the public schools can adapt to in-person learning and I think everyone is trying to do the right thing for the kids,” Gilmore said. “There’s competing research as to what the right thing is. There’ll be some hiccups, of course, but I think it’ll work out just fine.”
Daugherty, the Jefferson Middle School teacher said some of his students excelled in the remote format, despite some trying circumstances.
“We’ve had a great time. We’ve grown together,” said Daugherty, a Springfield native who worked as a professional musician before going into teaching. “I can’t say enough how proud I am of the kids who made it. We have to celebrate that somehow. There are kids out there who struggled through. There are kids who were in their closets because there were so many people in their house they couldn’t listen.”
For Daugherty, there’s just one more date to cross off.
“I know at Jefferson Middle School, we have a staff that cares and we’re going to do the best we can to make sure everyone is safe and has a good experience.”