By Steven Spearie
The State Journal-Register
Posted Aug 3, 2020 at 11:08 AM
Updated Aug 4, 2020 at 8:31 PM
After nearly three-and-a-half hours and a spirited discussion, the Springfield School District 186 board voted to start the school year with a hybrid/blended instruction.
A last-minute amendment put forth by board member and former board president Mike Zimmers to consider a remote learning start for all students failed.
The board approved a revised calendar that means students now will be in classes on Aug. 31, a week later. Teachers will still report Aug. 20.
“There’s no right answer here,” said Scott McFarland, board president, in discussion before the votes. “This is the hardest vote I’ve ever had to make.”
Despite the approval of the model, McFarland cautioned that schools won’t open if it’s not safe to do so.
“If we can mitigate the spread, then we will be able to move into a hybrid model,” he said. “If we can’t, we won’t.”
McFarland, Tiffany Mathis, Bill Ringer and Anthony Mares voted for the hybrid/blended model. Zimmers, Micah Miller and Judith Johnson voted against it.
The voting blocs were the same for the rejected amendment to start the school year remotely.
The consideration of both votes by District 186 came at a time when numbers of positive COVID-19 cases have spiked in Sangamon County, which earned a new orange-level warning Friday from the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The county reported its two-highest singe-day totals on July 29 and Sunday.
Zimmers, a former teacher, said there were “too many logistical problems” with the in-person model and that board members ought to be listening to the medical community in an impassioned plea.
“Going back into this situation is not safe,” he added. “I think we’re taking a huge gamble. If one kid gets sick, if one teacher gets sick, we will have failed this community.
“There are too many unknowns that are going to put people in danger. It seems like in the last month in this county we’ve gone away from (listening to the science).
Under the hybrid/blended model, most students would be in the classroom at least two days a week with additional remote instruction. Parents and guardians can also opt for full remote learning for students.
Superintendent Jennifer Gill said at Monday’s meeting that 10,142 students in the district have registered so far, leaving a little over 2,500 students yet to sign up.
Of those students, 5,254 students have opted for the hybrid/blended model with 4,888 students going for remote only.
“To discount that we have more than half of those who are registered asking for hybrid … that cannot be ignored,” Mathis said. “I’m here to advocate. I’ve seen the numbers.
“Remote-only doesn’t work if this whole region is not in stay-at-home shelter-in-place order. You have to consider when this was going on in the spring, it was a ghost town. We’re not in a Phase 2 or 3 situation where parents can be at home.”
Ringer added that offering both options probably is the best at this point. “If the results of all this testing continue to go up, we can make that call between now and Aug. 31.”
Gill and other school superintendents have been meeting with members of the local medical community, including a lengthy meeting Saturday. She said nine of the 11 medical members recommended that schools start the academic year with remote learning.
“My heart goes to both conversations,” Gill said of the choices.
“It will not work,” said board member Micah Miller about the hybrid/blended plan. “If we were truly listening to the Sangamon County Department of Public Health’s guidance, we would have listened on July 23 when they said this was unprecedented and extremely dangerous and our focus needs to shift to our younger population in social settings.
“We’re not listening to anybody in this. We’ve become a hot spot in Sangamon County.”
Miller added that there’s “a misconception that if you support remote learning only, that you support remote learning as some great form of education, which I don’t. I think in-person is impossible.
“If I send (my kids) to school, I have no doubt that it’s going to be a matter of time before the school gets shut down, then we’re not in-person anyway and that’s not helpful to anybody.”
“I believe the plan we have in front of us,” McFarland said, “ensures the safety of those people in (the hybrid/blended plan). That said, I still stand by the fact that environment will decide what happens on Aug. 31.”
Allison Acker, a first-grade teacher at Harvard Park Elementary School, wondered about students in households with limited support.
“Not every child needs in-person learning and many families can provide a safe, adequate learning environment at home. But what about the ones who don’t? Do they just not matter?
“Does public school really advocate for all kids or just the ones whose parents will advocate for them?”
Aaron Graves, president of the Springfield Education Association, a union that about 1,250 teachers and other professionals, expressed disappointment in the vote, especially from a safety standpoint.
“We’re going to work together as union to make sure schools are safe before we return,” Graves said. “I hope the district is willing to do that.”
Graves said teachers are looking forward to getting back with the students and back to school buildings “when it is safe to do so.”
Graves said that “nothing is off the table” as far as future action by SEA members, including informational pickets, rallies and demonstrations. That same sentiment was hinted at last week when the Illinois Education Association, of which the SEA is a member, and the Illinois Federation of Teachers issued a joint statement about ensuring the safety of schools.
A recent SEA anonymous poll showed that 72 percent of its members expressed a willingness to start the school year remotely.
“People are looking for answers. We have to do right by the kids, parents staff members and union members. We’re not just going to accept this,” Graves added.
“I keep hearing people say that the kids need to be back for socialization and for mental health and social emotional (needs),” said Tena Nestler, an early childhood teacher at Harvard Park Elementary. “That is not what is going to happen. Our classrooms are going to be more institutionalized than they’ve ever been.
“These kids are three and four years old. This will be their first experience in school. There will be many tears. I can’t hug them. I can’t hold their hands. How do we say that socially/emotionally it’s the best thing for those kids?”
The back-to-school model comes with the caveat that the state remains in Phase 4 of the “Restore Illinois” plan when school reconvenes.
The calendar approved by the board Monday front loads five remote learning planning days, which do not have to be made up, Gill said.
Masks are now part of the updated student handbook. All school personnel and visitors are required to wear them.
Late Tuesday, the Springfield Ball Charter Board voted 4-0 to start the school year with remote learning. The plan is through December, but the board will reevaluate on Aug. 31, two weeks after the start of school.
Casting the affirmative votes were Brian Wojcicki, Shelia Boozer, Meri Havenar and Deborah Weakley.
Contact Steven Spearie: 622-1788, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/stevenspearie.