An ‘energizing week’ as teachers, students complete first week of hybrid learning

Author: Steven Spearie – State Journal Register

Published: 4:51 p.m. CT January 17, 2021

Danielle Lewis, a second grade teacher at Hazel Dell Elementary School, said she signed up to teach in the hybrid model because she didn’t have any health conditions that would prevent her from being in-person with students.

Lewis, who has taught in District 186 since 2014, also knows the value of in-person learning.

But Lewis said “it broke my heart” to hear her 15-year-old daughter say that “it worried her” about Lewis returning to the classroom.

“My kids shouldn’t have to worry about me being at school,” Lewis admitted. “I did want to be back under the right conditions. There’s no doubt that kids learn better in person but it needs to be in the right conditions.”

Devynn Allen, a math teacher at Lanphier High School, also signed up as a hybrid

Allen admitted he didn’t know if it was safe enough initially for students and teachers to return for in-person instruction.

“Now that I’ve seen it in motion over the past week, I would say we’re at a point where we would be OK,” Allen said. “At the same time, if we ended up with multiple students or staff testing positive, I don’t think the district or the school should hesitate to close things down. Safety should be the number one priority.”

Other District 186 administrators and school board members said the first completed week of hybrid learning went off with relatively few hiccups.

The school board approved the return at its Jan. 4 meeting despite not meeting a set of four metrics or guidelines it had adopted earlier in the fall. 

The metrics from the Illinois Department of Public Health reflected the COVID-19 situation in Sangamon County.Get the Inside Illinois Politics newsletter in your inbox.

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Many who were eyeing an eventual return under the hybrid model said that the set of metrics was a telltale sign of safety and were under the impression that going back was tied to meeting all four metrics for two consecutive weeks.

About 44 percent of district students had signed up for hybrid, which puts students in classrooms two days a week under either an “A” or “B” schedule. The rest of the district’s students remained in the remote model.

For those who had not seen students in person since mid-March, when schools were shuttered in Illinois by Gov. JB Pritzker, it was an emotional return.

“It was just an energizing week for the teachers and the students who wished to return,” said District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill.

“Happy to see them, excited to see them,” said Jane Addams Elementary School principal Mike Grossen of the reaction teachers and staff members had to welcoming students.

“I have a mask that has a clear shield so sometimes I walk around with that so then they can see our big smiles. It’s just nice talking to them again.”

Gill said she was out at an elementary school most of last week when all district staffers were in schools, serving and checking on students.

“Seeing the brand new kindergartners come for the first day and seeing that excitement on their faces even though they had met their teachers on Zoom, that was a special moment,” Gill said. “Seeing the new sixth graders and the new high school freshmen as well coming into the new school buildings, that was excitement because it really was their first day.

“The last time they were in school they were in another setting or not yet in school.”

School board president Scott McFarland said he didn’t see anything beyond “first day of school issues” that administration and building personnel were responsive to during the week.

While 27 students were returned home from schools throughout the district on the firsts day of hybrid on Tuesday, “it shows what we were planning to do with our return-to-learn plan,” McFarland acknowledged. “If we have students who are showing symptoms or potentially symptomatic, we’re making sure they’re safe and everyone around them is safe, too.

“We knew going into this that with the hybrid model and the virus still around we’re going to have to be diligent on that and I believe that’s what the district’s doing.”

McFarland said the antigen testing, one of factors that swayed him to vote for the return to learning, is due to arrive early this week. McFarland said it was “a sizable shipment, in the several thousands” and will give the district “a steady stream” of testing.

Grossen said one of his biggest fears about the hybrid model, that parents would bring students on the wrong day, never materialized. 

“We did robocalls to students and obviously there’s been stuff on social media,” Grossen said. “We planned for it, but it didn’t happen. I attribute that to the parents and the supportive parents we have.”

Because of so few students — Lewis had five second graders Tuesday — the Hazel Dell teacher said she has had to change her way of teaching. Normally, there’s a lot of partnership in the classroom and learning from other students, Lewis said.

“It’s a little more difficult because we have to keep our social distance,” she said.

Lewis is also concerned that hybrid model students are getting less content. In math, for example, students have two weekly lessons while the other days are for asynchronous or independent learning.

“As a second grade teacher that worries me a whole lot,” Lewis admitted. “Third-grade curriculum especially for math is very difficult, so you need to have a solid foundation.”

Lewis said “in the back of my mind, I don’t think we were ready (to go back).”

Lewis has seen COVID-19 affect her family. A maternal uncle from Springfield died from it. Lewis’ sister tested positive for COVID.  

Allen, who teaches geometry to mostly sophomores and some juniors, admitted he had “a lot of apprehension going into last week.”

“I thought it went well, though” he said. “The students took wearing the mask and social distancing seriously. The school put a plan in place and I think it implemented it well.

“It’s definitely not what students would consider normal school, but it’s a step in that direction.”

Gill said she had special praise for teachers instructing both remote and hybrid students in the classroom. 

“I applaud them for helping us think creatively about how to serve our students in this very unique environment,” the superintendent said.

“Going forward, we’re going to continue to be very vigilant about every aspect related to the virus and we’re going to be very supportive of families and teachers as we navigate the hybrid in-person model, but we’re going to be equally supportive to those in remote and make sure that everyone’s education is working for them.

Grossen said he asked one of the students how he felt went he went home after the first day back.

“He said he was a little tired but happy and that was my reaction,” Grossen said. “I feel like we’re getting closer to normal and getting back into the swing and it’s exciting.”

Contact Steven Spearie: 622-1788,,