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,,


Author: Ben McKinney, Hybrid (In Person) 3rd Grade Teacher – SPS186

Publication: Illinois Times – January 14, 2021

I teach third grade at a school with a diverse student population in a neighborhood of working-class people. I have been in this school nearly a decade now, and I have come to know the businesses and families I serve.

I want my students in class. I want to be in class; I signed up to be a hybrid teacher. I miss the scent of freshly sharpened pencils, seeing the light bulb go on over their heads as they grasp a new concept and the gritty feel of whiteboard markers on my fingers. I miss it all and I want my kids back – but not yet.

I’m so ready for school to start that I even helped District 186 work through making plans, but the whole time we were doing that there was an understanding that success in returning to school meant starting from a place where all those plans would have the best chance of success. That starting line had metrics attached and I was proud of that, thinking members of the union and the administration had come together to ensure all of our safety.

When it became clear that the metrics were rigorous, the school board lost its way, twice. The school board first weakened those metrics and finally did away with them altogether. Now we are going to return when numbers are rising with the knowledge that kids and teachers will get sick. It appears that while I can do a lot to protect my students from fires, allergens, asthma, abuse and a whole range of other things (with a smaller chance of happening than getting COVID-19 at school), I can’t keep them safe from the misguided actions of local bureaucrats.

In-person schooling can be successful, if it starts when community spread is low. As I write this, community, state and national spread is all heading in the wrong direction.

The school board should immediately change course and engage once again in a scientific approach to reopening by holding to the metrics originally set. They should heed the warnings from teachers and building administrators who have made it clear that while of course we can go back, it is not yet safe to do so and the building blocks upon which this plan was created are no longer in place.

Let’s not wait to act until it is too late, like most schools do. Let the science and data guide our decisions.

Ben McKinney

District 186 readies itself for return of students to classrooms

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.

One of the new school buses unveiled by First Student, Monday, January 11, 2021, in Springfield, Ill. First Student will be replacing 76 of the approximately 200 buses that serve District 186 that will be outfitted with advanced tablet technology and audio programming that allows drivers to access important information, including the fastest routes. The buses will also have WiFi camera systems with FirstView technology that enables parents to track their child’s bus and FirstACTS a web-based communication tool that helps efficiently track student conduct on school buses. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

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.

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.”

A new tablet system installed in one new school buses from First Student that will be used to show drivers routes as well as a system for reporting student behavior while on the bus, Monday, January 11, 2021, in Springfield, Ill. First Student will be replacing 76 of the approximately 200 buses that serve District 186 that will be outfitted with advanced tablet technology and audio programming that allows drivers to access important information, including the fastest routes. The buses will also have WiFi camera systems with FirstView technology that enables parents to track their child’s bus and FirstACTS a web-based communication tool that helps efficiently track student conduct on school buses. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

“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.”

District 186 school board members hope ‘downward trend’ of metrics continues

Author: Steven Spearie State Journal-Register

Published at 11:30 p.m. CT December 21, 2020

Springfield School District 186 board members said Monday they liked where a set of metrics governing the in-person return of students Jan. 12 is headed, but remained leery about a post-Christmas and New Year’s spike.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Jennifer Gill will be sending a letter to the 1,300-member Springfield Education Association notifying the union of the district’s intent to return to a hybrid model on Jan. 12, a date the board voted on Dec. 7 as a goal of a starting date.

The letter is required 10 days in advance of the return of students.

The board will have a clearer picture on Jan. 4, its next meeting, about the start date.

Currently, the district is meeting two of the four metrics, or guidelines, it set earlier in the fall. The four metrics are recommended by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Two other metrics in question–the positivity and cases per 100,000 in Sangamon County–are also tumbling, but are still in the “moderate” or “substantial” category.

Another condition guiding the return of students under the hybrid model is that all four metrics have to meet thresholds set by the board, making the Jan. 4 meeting a critical signpost if students are to return by the agreed upon date.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction and we have a good shot (at starting on Jan. 12 or soon after), but I’m speaking for myself,” said president Scott McFarland after Monday’s meeting. “If I get some bad data in front of me in the next week or two, that may change my tune.”

Like a lot of people, McFarland said he thought there was a potential for a spike in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving, “so I hope for the next holiday coming up, we’ll continue to see that trend line go down, but that’s dependent on what happens in the community.

Police get creative with Christmas giveaway at Fairview School

COVID can’t deter Cops, Kids, and Christmas

Author: Steven Spearie, State Journal Register

Photographer: Justin Fowler

Published 6:38 p.m. CT, December 17, 2020

It has been an admittedly tough year for Alissa Smith of Springfield.

Smith lost her job because she had to quarantine, even though she tested negative for COVID-19.

So seeing smiles on the faces of three of her children, Josie, a first-grader, Bailey, a fourth-grader, and Keagen, a fifth-grader, all students at Fairview Elementary School, was a bit of a respite.

All three got presents from a Springfield police officer as part of Police Benevolent and Protective Association Unit #5’s Cops, Kids and Christmas event Thursday.

“This makes it a lot better,” admitted Smith, who has seven children from ages 3 to 13. “There are a lot of good people in our community. It’s a big blessing to our family.”

Amy Miller, a parent educator at Fairview, said the school has had a partnership with the PBPA #5 for the last six years. Normally, officers and kids meet on a Saturday, have breakfast and then go shopping at Meijer.

Like a lot things, COVID-19 threw a wrench into plans, Miller said.

Rather than cancel the event, Miller said, both sides got creative.

Students and families filled out information sheets, and staff members from Fairview shopped with officers, who then wrapped the presents.

Officers were on hand at the north side school as parents drove up and the gifts were placed in vehicles.

Staff members at the school could pick one or two students for the program, and 55 students in all, Miller said, got presents.

“For us, this was huge, to still have it,” said Officer Tami Russell, who is vice president of the PBPA #5, while donning a red Santa Claus suit Thursday. “We wanted to make sure it happened, and we tried to stay COVID-compliant the whole time.”

Brenden Thomas, 6, gets a fist bump from Santa Claus during the Cops, Kids and Christmas gift delivery by Springfield Police Benevolent and Protective Association Unit #5 at Fairview Elementary on Thursday. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Russell said this year might be a template for the way the event is handled in the future. Officers “got to be the little kids picking out this fun stuff and wrapping it. It’s more of a true traditional Santa because they get to open the presents and be surprised instead of just seeing it as we buy (the gifts).”

Miller said one of the beneficial parts of the program is that it breaks down barriers between the kids and police officers.Get the Inside Illinois Politics newsletter in your inbox.

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“They realize officers are kind and they’re human and they’re funny,” Miller said.

Russell agreed.

“Some of these kids never need us unless it’s an emergency and it’s really traumatic,” Russell said. “We want them to know we’re real people and we enjoy these holidays and want to make it just as fun for them.”

Samantha Thomas said it has been stressful this holiday season. Thomas, a health care worker, was picking up presents with her kids, Brenden, a kindergartner, and Andre, a second-grader, at Fairview.

“To be able to have a little joy like this makes it feel more like Christmas, not like a pandemic so much,” Thomas said.

“2020 has stunk for everyone, and we just wanted these kids to have a good Christmas,” Russell added.

PBPA #5 raised funds for gifts through a cash raffle last month.

Contact Steven Spearie at 622-1788, or